Pain & Gain tells the true story of a series of crimes perpetrated by extremely dim-witted bodybuilders that’s so excessive, over-the-top, absurd and batcrap crazy, that only Michael Bay’s signature non-stop, over-indulgent, ADD-addled style could have done it justice. It’s so crazy, atonal, wildly irreverent and deliciously impulsive, just like its grotesque protagonists, that I’m almost ashamed that I enjoyed it so much.
I can’t really say Bay makes up for three Transformers movies with Pain & Gain, he has a lot to atone for inducing an eight hour long migraine on the entire planet, but at least he takes a break from examining the many intricacies of giant robo-testicles in order to mind-rape his audience with quite possibly the most gloriously offensive and insane major studio release of this year. Unless Tony Stark cooks up a bundle of decapitated human feet on an outdoor barbecue grill in the upcoming Iron Man 3, I feel pretty safe with that prediction.
In his first non-action movie since the beginning of his feature film career in 1995, Bay composes the unbelievably true story of three nincompoop body builders brainwashed by dirt bag motivational speakers and religious mumbo-jumbo that convinces them to attempt a fast track into the American dream by embezzling entire livelihoods from rich douche bags. The motivation behind these acts is set up clearly, but they are not presented as excuses, these are psychopaths and very stupid ones at that. They make the bumbling criminals in Fargo and A Simple Plan look like masterminds of their trade.
George Carlin placed dangerous people in three categories: Stupid, crazy, or full of crap. According to Carlin, if any person shows all three of these traits, you better run for the hills. Our three anti-heroes fit all three and many more glaring personality defects.
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is an overzealous megalomaniac, a byproduct of the American dream who can’t wait to get to the top by any means necessary. Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) is an ex-convict, an ex-junkie and a newborn Christian who believes that Jesus forgives pretty much any despicable act. Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) is the dictionary definition of insecurity who pumps himself full of HGH in a vain attempt to prove his worth, even if the drug causes his penis to go as limp as overcooked spaghetti.
One day, Daniel decides to kidnap Victor (Tony Shalhoub), an obnoxious rich deli owner who frequents the gym the three bodybuilders work in and force him to sign over all of his belongings. He convinces Adrian and Paul to get in on the deal by telling them that in America, "you’re either a doer or a don’ter". No typo, this is the direct quote.
This is a line he regurgitates from Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), a motivational speaker who’s proud that he left his family in the cold for a boat and seven "hot bitches". According to Victor, in order to achieve the American dream, you have to do something, anything, even if that thing involves kidnapping, extortion, and even murder. But never mind your worries, Daniel’s sure everything will work out because he "watched a lot of movies."
To say that from this point on things go spectacularly wrong would be a gross understatement. The fact that after the intense turmoil and trauma our idiot protagonists enforce on others and then manage to live a fun life of excess as if everything is hunky dory proves the old saying “Ignorance is bliss.” As the dead bodies pile up and body parts are gleefully decapitated, things escalate to such absurd and surreal lengths, we witness a scene that would feel right at home in a Bunuel classic. At this point, the film is compelled to freeze-frame and remind us that we’re still watching a true story.
There are many laugh-out-loud moments in the film resulting from the countless idiotic mistakes the bodybuilders indulge themselves in. Wahlberg, Johnson and Mackie have impeccable comic timing. The organic flow of their panicky banter puts any Vince Vaughn - Ben Stiller movie to shame. Because of the inherent humor in these performances, it’s easy to judge the film as forcing the audience to sympathize with these people and the violent acts they commit.
However, the main difference here is that we’re laughing at them, not with them. Bay portrays the characters as nothing more than parasites of a corrupt ideology that feeds on rampant materialism and is never satisfied. By presenting their somewhat bloated story in a visual style that’s as fleeting, unfocused, unattractive and pointlessly extreme as its protagonists, Michael Bay perfectly complements the underlying themes of the story. Yes, I did use the words “Michael Bay” and “underlying themes” in the same sentence.
Even though the camera work is much steadier and the editing allows for shots to linger longer than point-five seconds, the trademark Bay style is very evident here, although mixed with some wildly abrupt tonal shifts. The visual approach of the film switches from Bad Boys II to Trainspotting in the blink of an eye. This disorienting execution fits perfectly to a subject matter revolving around such self-indulgence. Whether or not this was just Bay being Bay or if it was a more calculated move is beside the point, it just works.
I have a feeling that this is the type of over-the-top, cynical dissection of American materialism that Harmony Korine tried to pull off with Spring Breakers and failed miserably. Yes, I just wrote that Michael Bay made a better movie than the indie darling Korine. I’ll leave my film critic badge and gun on the way out.