Pain & Gain – Best Movies for Some
What Scorsese is to New York, so too is Michael Bay to the…great(?) city of Miami. Because let’s face it, we’re a better society for having the Bad Boys movies in our world. Sadly, Bay has been absent from his city for far too long, condemned to a robot apocalypse that, towards the end, ended careers and ruined childhoods. But he’s back, right where he belongs, not just back in the right place, but at the right time. The 90s were the time for Bay; there’s something about the fast cars, quick success, stable economy, and natural drugs that the 1990s. Clothes were a little crazier, the colors more outrageous. The morals…questionable. If they ever decide to adopt the Grand Theft Auto series officially, they should adapt III and get Bay to direct because Pain & Gain is his audition reel. And it may be Bay’s most accessible film to date, though I doubt people will walk away with a new opinion of the man; if you didn’t like Bay walking in, you probably wouldn’t want him walking out. I like Bay, for the most part, so I had a good time with the colorful, at times amusing, never dull and ultimately reasonably shallow look at the American dream as filtered through the amoralistic sensibilities of real American, the one, the only: Michael Bay.
Pain & Gain is the hyper-masculine sibling to Spring Breakers. Both aim the American way of life by way of Florida. The girls of Harmony Korine’s satire call Florida and the Spring Break experience the ‘way life should be,’ the super buff men of Bay’s ode see Florida as a crummy place that can only get better. Both groups try to carve themselves out a slice by assuming the role that is lionized in America: the criminal. People! The American Dream is not a spouse, white picket fences, and 2.5 children; it is the elevation of yourself over others. Do not seek equality, a character muses near the end, ‘I wanted to be better than them.’
Mark Wahlberg is Daniel Lugo, a muscle-head personal trainer who has some smarts behind the buff body and has some big, unfocused ambition.
He’s American born, but he very much has that immigrant dream, a dream distilled through the lens of movies. He’s heroes are Scarface and the guys in the Godfather, the guys who took what they wanted (let alone that all of them ended up either dead or bitterly alone, kings of ash). But those guys are cool and represent a kind of masculinity that doesn’t wear sweatpants or spandex, which everyone was wearing in the 90s. When a wealthy client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), prattles on and on about all of his money, his boat, his house, and his take on the American dream, Daniel gets that other very American feeling: envy. He’s better than this guy, and he was born and raised here, so why isn’t he as successful? So he hatches a plan and drags his gym buddy Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and newcomer Paul (The Rock), a recovering alcoholic and man of God, to provide the muscle. They manage, eventually, to kidnap Kershaw and force him to hand over his money, but not without a high moral cost and black humor shenanigans.
To say that Bay’s movies have ever been about anything (other than explosions and gratuitous violence and T&A) is laughable, but the story of Pain & Gain is very un-Bay-like, and it forces him to curb some of his more…over the top sensibilities. There is some violence, and yes, naked women are dancing everywhere. But the script forces him to make decisions he wouldn’t otherwise make. There are long scenes of talking, actual character interaction, and a fraction of development. You would love it if the Transformers films had this level of dialogue. Bay would not be my director of choice for the material; the story needs a seasoned hand to make the humor pitch black, the Coen brothers would make this material sing. Bay does succeed, though not as well as he might like. There is a timing issue with the film; the dialogue isn’t zippy enough; the jokes are flat and the overall pacing. In contrast, the film is never dull (it’s a candy-coated wonderland), is off, especially during the second act. The interrogation and torture scenes take up entirely far too much screen time, and no movie of Michael Bay’s should ever, ever be over two hours (you really couldn’t find nine minutes to cut out?).
Wahlberg’s Lugo is an oddly compelling character; we like him, he’s a little over-zealous, but he is ultimately charming.
The disconnect of the film, something Bay will always struggle with, is the belief that these good characters can do the morally reprehensible things they do with no loss of sleep. Wahlberg’s great, but Daniel is a stationary, unmoved character. He’s still the same asshole at the end as he was at the beginning. The Rock at least shows us the impact of all the terrible things these guys put themselves through, but the comedic way in which it’s displayed ruins the character growth. Paul is a lesson, not a person. The true hero ends up being Kershaw, and he’s a dick. We want Daniel to win, but after the stunts he pulls, you kind of want him to get caught, too.
Pain & Gain, despite its pastel infused color palette and abundance of beautiful people, is an ugly film. The characters are unpleasant; the plot is an ugly inverted look at America; this isn’t your mom’s American dream, this is the American dream of the Reagan era: me, me, me, take, take, take. Bay succeeds in showing us, but he doesn’t warn against the corruption; our characters suffer a sad fate, but the audience is left kind of cheering. Look at what they did to that asshole immigrant! Shows them! In its way, Pain & Gain ultimately idealizes the opposite of what it was trying to accomplish: do this and fuck the man, or rules or right and wrong, because this is America, baby, and if you deserve it, the universe will serve it.