Friday, April 26, 2013

Pain & Gain (**)

Directed by Michael Bay


There's no other filmmaker that I actively dislike more than Michael Bay. His films create visions of a certain America that I want no part of, ripe with men that think only with their muscles and women who seem to only work for the benefit of those men. And the explosions. My lord, there isn't a car big enough or fancy enough that he didn't want to blow to smithereens. His 2001 film, Pearl Harbor, was such a deliberately ignorant piece of garbage that used the pages of history books as toilet paper. It offended me as a film lover and as an American, and I hadn't seen a Michael Bay movie since then. That is, until now, as Bay attempts to tackle something on a smaller scale. Pain & Gain is Bay's first non-Transformer film since The Island in 2005 and it might be the most interesting story he's ever told -  not that we're talking about any crowning achievement.

Pain & Gain is based on a true story - as the movie reminds us over and over - about three bodybuilders filled with suppressed rage ready to unleash upon the few getting in their way of what they want. Lead by Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), Paul Doyle (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) decide to turn to a life of crime after they figure that they deserve a bigger piece of the American capitalist pie. Lugo is one-of-a-kind delusional, believing that his constant pumping and muscle-sculpting is equal to hard work in the real world. Danny is able to convince Paul and Adrian of the same, but only because they are probably the only two people within the Miami bodybuilding universe that are dumber than he is. Their road to this fortune they believe they deserve is paved in not-so-good intentions, and followed by even worse execution, leading them down a rabbit hole of drugs and murder.

The three preach hard work and building from the bottom, but there course to success? Kidnapping a temperamental millionaire named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), torturing him for weeks before seizing all of his assets and then attempting (numerous times) to kill him. It takes several attempts (two tries at kidnapping are foiled by their own basic incompetence), a lot of work and despite it all, they get away with Kershaw's entire estate, including his home. But they learn the hard way that millions in riches doesn't exactly fix all of their problems, and when the very-much-alive Kershaw finally recovers from his injuries enough to use a telephone, he gets in contact with private investigator Ed DuBois (Ed Harris), who's willing to use Kershaw's case to distract him from a tireless retirement. DuBois' precision mixed with Kershaw's insistence leads to the eventual end of the three men's criminal enterprise.

We know from the beginning, as we watch Wahlberg running from police in slow-motion, spit-spewing glory, that things will not end well for this crew, but Pain & Gain's major dichotomy is its need to insist how true the story is (ie, that we're watching something real) versus its need to entertain us with endless irony (ie, that we're watching a fabrication of the real world). The problem is probably that Pain & Gain seems to be satirizing the very American society that Bay has done such a good job of promoting with most of his movies. How can we really trust that Pain & Gain is trying to make fun of the unapologetic homophobia and misogyny coming out of its pores, when those are two things that Bay has depended on to make his other films so successful? It's a conflict I had as I was watching it, and I did my best to stop myself from making myself not like Pain & Gain simply because I don't really want to like anything Michael Bay.

Cause the truth is that Pain & Gain really is a fun movie here and there, and a lot of that has to with its cast. Danny Lugo strikes me as the kind of character Mark Wahlberg was born to play. Wahlberg has shown that he's got more range than his public image might lead you to believe (watch I Heart Huckabees and Boogie Nights for proof of this), but its always seemed that he's preferred to be walking away from an explosion in slow motion, and the character of Danny Lugo provided him with the opportunity to both exploit his gift with comedy while also letting him beef up to levels we've never seen him in before. But the star here is Johnson, whose combination of intoxicating charisma and freakish physicality has never been better used than now. As an uber-Christian Jesus freak with a dangerous cocaine habit, Paul Doyle is the only character with any true complexity and moral choices, and Johnson is the only one of the three who ends this movie with anything coming close to empathy from the audience.

The film is also filled with terrific supporting performances, including Rebel Wilson as a nurse who helps with Adrian's steroid-ravaged impotence than falls in love with him. Shaloub's Victor Kershaw is brash and indecent, and makes for a lousy victim in the end, but I give credit to Shaloub for not allowing even a single ounce of sympathetic behavior to weave itself into the role. And extra props should go to Ed Harris, whose whispy detective is brow-beaten and deflated and finds second wind in trying to find Victor Kershaw justice. Harris is probably the only performance in the whole movie that's main focus isn't trying to get laughs, and it's a testament to Harris' abilities that it never puts the movie off-balance or feels out of place. I know it seems like I'm ignoring Anthony Mackie so far here, but I must admit that I'm such a huge fan of his that I really felt like this role was well beneath him. That being said, it's fine if he wants to have a fun time on a movie set (and make a bit of money in the process), but his talent far surpasses anything he shows in this movie.

The film's screenplay (penned by the team of Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, of Narnia fame) is a total and complete mess, with more voice-over narration than actual dialogue. The movie's story goes completely off the deep end by its third act, but the film stays in ironic satire mode. I never felt like Bay or this script ever really embraced the complete ludicrousness of this tale. The movie is filled to the brim with humor, but in reality this is a terrifying ghastly sequence of events which (as we're repeatedly reminded) really did happen. Instead on focusing on the terror, its side-stepped for more punchlines without realizing that events themselves can be pretty good punchlines. (Grantland's Wesley Morris wrote a great piece that philosophized what may have been if the Coen Brothers had gotten their hands on this material). The end result is something that's a bit half-baked, as if the actors were ready to go full-throttle but greater forces were holding them back.

The film reminded me a lot of Spring Breakers in its apparent goal to totally tear apart the American capitalist landscape, but while Harmony Korine may have gotten a little too cute with his girly crew, Michael Bay gets a little too macho with his group of beefcakes. In the end, he needs those material-obsessed Americans to buy those tickets and reach the bottom line. In that regard (the bottom line, that is), Michael Bay is one of the most successful filmmakers of all time. Its hard to really take Bay seriously when he says that Pain & Gain was his attempt at something smaller and nuanced. His view of nuance seems to be demented violence, because he certainly doesn't seem to find the nuance in female characters (in this film, they're either comic relief or sexual eye candy). But I'm totally biased, and its hard for me to give him credit for anything other than delivering the movies on time and making boatloads of cash. But I will not dismiss his talent for crafting action sequences and allowing his actors to fill spaces, and Pain & Gain shows both of those strengths at their highest levels.

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