After you've seen Pain & Gain, come back to listen to our Spoiler Special:
I never thought I’d still be thinking about a Michael Bay movie 36 hours after seeing it, but here we are. That’s not to say that most of the thoughts I’ve been having about Pain & Gain, Bay’s lurid black comedy based on a true-crime story, are charitable ones. But a day and half after walking out with a sensation, primarily, of physical relief—at two hours and nine minutes, Pain & Gain makes for a long, loud, relentlessly assaultive sit—I find that my thumb is wavering at half-mast. I’m still not sure whether to mildly like or mildly hate this movie.
That’s pretty much the range we’re working in, though. I can neither ally myself with those who see the movie as Bay’s self-reflexive magnum opus—the “reason he was put on earth”—nor those comparing it (however hilariously) to “an unmonitored child painting with his own feces”). Pain & Gain provides the amount and type of action you would expect from the creator of Bad Boys, Armageddon, and the Transformers franchise—fistfights, chases, explosions—plus a little more (and better) comedy than Bay usually serves up. (Oy, those “jokes” in the Transformers movies. One recognizes them as jokes by their structure alone.) But what sets Pain & Gain apart is its tone—a seemingly impossible blend of savage self-satire and blissfully oblivious self-enjoyment.
This time around, Bay has at least one idea. An idea with which you will be intimately familiar by the time you hit the street, since nearly every scene, starting off with Mark Wahlberg’s opening voice-over, drives it home with a club. Wahlberg’s character, a self-deluded bodybuilder named Daniel Lugo, does sit-ups while hanging upside down from the outside wall of the Miami gym where he works. On the soundtrack we hear Lugo’s inner monologue, a litany of self-help affirmations (“I’m big … I’m hot …”) and lunkhead cogitations on America (”the most buff, pumped-up country on the planet”). Lugo’s dimwitted, shallow-souled conflation of material wealth and physical size amounts to a kind of crackpot belief system; he attends the seminars of a success guru (Ken Jeong) who exhorts him to “be a doer, not a don’t-er.” Lugo’s vision of doer-dom is to recruit two of his fellow cash-poor iron-pumpers (Anthony Mackie and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to kidnap, extort, and attempt to murder one of his rich clients, deli-chain owner Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). That a remedial-level criminal like Lugo is the mastermind of this plan is the first indication of just how wrong everything is about to go.
The movie’s first 30 minutes establish a genially frenetic mood that only starts to wear on you when you realize that’s the only mood this movie is going to have. There’s never a variation in the film’s dynamics or rhythm, so that by the time Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay (based on a series of articles in the Miami New Times by Pete Collins) reaches its gruesome last act, the intensity has no peaks left to hit.* After the three Muscle Milk–swilling stooges seem to have pulled off their crime and are living like kings under assumed identities, a retired detective (Ed Harris) returns to the job to track them down—and the closer he gets to finding them, the more the crooks (and the movie) spin out of control.
Wahlberg has always been at ease in the role of a pea-brained comic lug (which is not at all to suggest that he is himself one. I find Wahlberg a canny and underrated actor, one who, unlike a lot of leading men near his age, never hot-dogs it for the camera, and thus often seems to recede in the background of his showier co-stars). Anthony Mackie, whose soulful leading-man charm would seem to make him ill-suited to play a needy and impotent steroid addict, gets a lot of comic bang for the buck out of some notably lame penis jokes. And The Rock (I know, former wrestler Dwayne Johnson wants us to stop calling him that, but I’m not ready yet—it’s too perfect a name for this Easter Island head of a man) gives a startlingly relaxed performance that’s like a Zen garden in the midst of a monster truck rally. As a sober Jesus-freak ex-con who’s the most morally grounded of the three kidnappers (which in this case is saying very, very little), Johnson is beguilingly quiet and (when he isn’t punching someone) almost gentle. The scenes in which he tries to bond with their captive, an amusingly surly if overly buffoonish Shalhoub, are as close as Pain & Gain ever gets to showing a moment of human connection. Anything involving a woman, except for a couple of funny scenes with Rebel Wilson as Anthony Mackie’s foulmouthed wife, is so preposterously frat-boy-level sexist I can only pray Bay’s intent is satirical, and gay men—who talk with a lisp and are often priests, did you know that?—come off even worse.
Your mileage may vary with Pain & Gain, depending on your interpretation of its cryptic tone and your tolerance for loud noises. But make no mistake: This movie’s soul is darker and emptier than the void of space from which the Transformers once hurtled. It’s a deeply cynical film—and yet, at the same time, a weirdly playful one, with a manic, reckless energy and vulgar humor that it’s hard not to respond to. In the last half especially, it’s as if Bay is deliberately driving character development, narrative coherence, and tonal consistency off a cliff just to stand by and laugh maniacally as the debris and carnage come hurtling down.
Like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, to which it’s being widely compared, Pain & Gain is a critique of American consumerism and mindless violence that unashamedly revels in its own nihilism and tawdriness and incoherence, its triumphant meta-stupidity. Of the two, I would rather pick neither—but if forced at gunpoint (hopefully not by bikini-clad chicks in pink ski masks) I’d have to go with Pain & Gain, if only for that strangely sweet moment when Dwayne Johnson, hiding out in an abandoned sex-toys warehouse, inspects a rubber prosthetic vagina with an expression of boyish wonder.
Correction, April 26, 2013: This article originally misspelled Stephen McFeely's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)