Director Michael Bay (Transformers, The Rock) is like a demolition expert. For better or worse you know exactly what you can expect of him. On the day that a building is set to be destroyed, he’s going to show up on time, he’s going to do his job, and he’s not going to be subtle about it. Kaboom! That building is going up in flames.
What happens then when Michael Bay, the explosion guy, shows up to the job and takes out a hammer and nails instead of the keys to the wrecking ball? In Pain & Gain, Bay’s latest directorial effort, this is the exact scenario that plays itself out. Bay seemingly has some ideas he wants to convey this time around, and perhaps for the first time in his career, it seems that he is not satisfied with merely blowing shit up… well except for the lives of his protagonists. They get messed up plenty.
Pain & Gain follows the life of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a bodybuilder whose aims are simple: to finally realize the American dream and to become someone that matters instead of the loser that he has always been. To do that, Lugo believes means taking drastic measures. Thanks to the advice of a motivational speaker, he wants to be a “doer, not a don’ter”, meaning that instead of just talking about his dreams, he needs to take quick, decisive action to realize them. From this desperation, Lugo hatches an ill-conceived plan. He and two of his friends from the gym who have similar ambitions (Anthony Mackie as Daniel’s best friend Adrian and Dwayne Johnson as Paul the born again druggie) must kidnap one of their clients (The always dependable Tony Shaloub as Victor Kershaw) and torture him until he has signed away everything that he has to them.
Long story short, the methods are eventually successful; the poor rob the rich and win the day. But, that is not what this film is really about, but Bay and co rather choose to focus on the results of how that hastily gathered wealth impacts them and also the effect that the loss of that treasure has on Kershaw. What follows as a result is a blitz of ever increasing insanity as the once rich tries to regain his status and as the trio of would-be-Robin Hoods clench their stolen newfound glory like a vice.
This is a film that like most of Bay’s former attempts is about America. At one point Lugo says, “You know what makes America great? We’re the buffest country in the world”. There is an irony here obviously as America struggles with obesity to an absurd degree, but even more so because to some extent the screenwriters here seem to see Lugo as a stand-in for all of America: tough on the outside, but completely empty on the inside. Bringing the irony along even further it seems that the director and writers may be at odds as all of Bay’s previous output could conceivably be encapsulated in that same narration. To Bay, America is great because it’s bigger and badder than everyone else; to the writer’s, America, like the characters within the world they have created, is poised to have an even greater fall thanks to that potent mix of strength and stupidity.
This is a movie then about the absurdity of the American dream, the cost of obtaining it, and whether or not it even exists in the first place. It is surprisingly effective at dissecting this vague concept and yet for every step forward that the film takes, for every absurdly funny image or exchange, the film ultimately takes another step backwards because Bay simply cannot get out of his own way. Just when you think, maybe, just maybe the hack has matured, out comes a poop or a dildo joke. It’s an interesting film, certainly the most bizarre in Bay’s career, but it is maddeningly inconsistent because it cannot choose which path it wants to take, neither glorifying the criminals at its core nor vilifying them. It seems rather to want to have it both ways, for us to hate these characters, but also to root for them because of what they represent.
Bay has always been able to inconceivably attract talent to the hot mess that he calls a filmography. From Nicholas Cage to Bruce Willis he has worked with some of the top shelf talent that Hollywood has had to offer. That is once again the case here, working with surging Mark Wahlberg (who once again proves that comedy is his true strong suit), emerging Anthony Mackie and Rebel Wilson, and film veterans Shaloub and Ed Harris, getting respectable performances from the entire ensemble, even if they are buried under the typical Bay maelstrom of immaturity. Perhaps the most surprising performance, however, comes courtesy of Dwayne Johnson who is hilarious and absurd as the ex junkie turned Christian turned junkie again. This is a different caliber of work than anything that Johnson has done in the past, suggesting layers we didn’t know he was capable of and bringing a full-fledged three-dimensional character to the screen. It is through him that the film finds its most clear filter, showing a character that had the American dream once, but lost it, succumbing to money and women over the purer path he had been pursuing before. Indeed, his path seems to be directly taken from a Coen Brothers screenplay and his performance would have fit right in alongside characters like Marge Gunderson or The Dude.
Pain & Gain is interesting for so many reasons, exceling and failing in equal measures. It’s certainly the most ambitious effort of Bay’s career, showing tremendous restraint for a majority of it while maintaining his unique style, and yet for that reason it is also his most disappointing, not ever fully able to climb the mountain he’s attempted to scale. There is a great film somewhere in Pain & Gain. The soundtrack is quite a bit of fun, reveling in the 90’s hits that would have marked the backdrop for this tale. The characters are interesting, the screenplay based on a twisted and compelling true story. And yet, this is a film that like its protagonists chooses to go for the quick and easy solution, sacrificing the hard work that could have netted them the true treasure.
Pain & Gain looks amazing from the outside and has some truly terrific pieces, but at its center this is a film that is about too many conflicting ideas, never embracing any one of them, becoming a muddled collection of themes instead. It may not be an empty husk like Lugo or the rest of Bay’s filmography, but the end result is the same. Even if he used a different tool this time, the demolition expert didn’t know how to build a house, hammered too hard, and brought the frame down around him.