If you have a low tolerance for people in movies doing dumb shit, then you're probably going to hate the new Michael Bay film PAIN & GAIN, a film filled with exactly that. But if you go in realizing that much of the story about three personal trainers who engage in bizarre and violent criminal acts to make money they could never make at their jobs is true and that these gentlemen were, in fact, experts at being idiots, you'll probably enjoy the hell out of this over-the-top example of the American Dream gone utterly sideways.
The setting is 1990s Miami, a place where body builders (or men and women who look like body builders) are a dime a dozen, but that doesn't stop Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) from dreaming big, so much so that he gets busted for running a scam on unsuspecting investors in a side gig outside of his training job. But he's an ambitious man who gets a job at a high-profile gym (run by Rob Corddry's John Mese) and triples memberships in just a couple of months, along with his partner Adrian (Anthony Mackie), whose overuse of steroids has left him impotent with raisins for balls. The two men are tired of training filthy rich clients, and they decide the best course of action is to somehow find a way to not just kidnap one of these people, but force them through torture to sign over their entire fortunes to Daniel. Why didn't I think of that?
It actually takes some time to get used to seeing Wahlberg and Mackie so grotesquely pumped up, but when they recruit ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to work at the gym and to become a part of their ridiculous plan, they don't seem quite as foreboding. Daniel targets a particular rich asshole client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), who is practically begging to get punched every time he opens his mouth. And it's when this kidnapping goes down that some audience members might go from laughing to cringing as things take a disturbingly violent turn. I never stopped laughing, since even their attempts at getting Kershaw to sign over his bank accounts and assets are insane. But it's when they try and kill him (and continuously fail) that are especially hilarious. The truck tire rolling right over his face was particularly great; I felt like I was watching a Looney Toons cartoon.
In many ways, PAIN & GAIN is the film people think Michael Bay makes all of the time, only this one has a very smart story (with a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) about dumb people who think there's a short cut to success. And there are few things more satisfying than watching smart actors play dumb characters. This is the closest Wahlberg has come to playing Dirk Diggler since Boogie Nights, and he excels at it playing the passionate, persuasive fool. Mackie can do anything, but it's his moments with girlfriend/nurse Ramona (Rebel Wilson, who continues to be funny by being understated) that were among my favorite.
Probably the biggest shocker of the film is Johnson, who I'm always convinced is trying to protect some image until he embraces a character like Doyle, who starts out the film doubting they should even do this, but once the money comes rolling in, he dives headfirst into women, coke and a lavish lifestyle that makes him the first to suggest another kidnapping since he's run out of funds. There are few things more satisfying than watching The Rock snorting blow off a stripper, or barbeque a bunch of sawed off hands in the front yard.
Also on hand is Ed Harris, playing Ed Du Bois, a retired private investigator hired by Kershaw to track down the guys who did this to him. Harris comes in late in the film, but his laid-back, intelligent portrayal makes the capture of these boneheads seem like a foregone conclusion. I also liked Ken Jeong take on Johnny Wu (clearly riffing on infomercial legend Tom Vu, he of the yacht filled with bikini-clad young ladies), a fast-money motivational speaker whose commercials and in-person consultation convince Daniel that he's lagging behind his financial possibilities.
There's a point in the back half of PAIN & GAIN where a title card comes up, saying something to the effect of, "Please remember, this is based on a true story." (I believe it's somewhere around the grilling of the hands scene.) And it's easy to think that much of this is made up, but it's so outrageous that it feels legit. But more interesting to me is Bay's direction, which still manages to include some of his patented commercial-ready slick filmmaking, but also includes quite a few more lingering shots, allowing the actors to really dig into their performances. The film makes Miami look like paradise, loaded with bikini bodies and tanned muscles. This is Bay's paradise.
For those who think Bay's films are loaded with empty-headed characters and no plot, PAIN & GAIN represents a film where the character are meant to be empty headed, but placed in a story that does their braintrust justice. It's sometimes vulgar, mean and bloody to excess, but there are many of us who see the value in such attributes. This is a film that strives and succeeds to be funny and entertaining, and it pushes its actors in directions they rarely, if ever, go. PAIN & GAIN is one of the only films where Bay's skill as a technician of film is successfully combined with a fascinating story. Just don't eat anything before you see it, is all I'm saying.