THAT’S NOT ROTTEN! Pain & Gain is Bay (Mostly) Without Bombast

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2013 was a peculiar year in terms of cinematic excess. Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Pain & Gain presented excessive takes on the American Dream. American exceptionalism with criminal perversity is nothing new in the cinema – Howard Hawks’ 1932 Scarface or Brian De Palma’s 1983 Scarface are great examples – the films of 2013 continued this tradition for the new American disillusionment that has grown in the wake of the Great Recession. While I consider The Wolf of Wall Street and Spring Breakers masterpieces, Pain & Gain fails reach the same plateau of its brethren. However, warts and all, it is still an important work worthy of further discussion.

It has been said, more than once, that Pain & Gain is Michael Bay’s attempt to make a Coen Brothers movie. Bay, a long-time fan of the Coens, has used various Coen-approved actors in his films – Frances McDormand (Joel Coen’s wife) in Transformers 3, John Turturro in the first 3 Transformers films, Billy Bob Thornton in Armageddon, Tony Shalhoub in Pain & Gain, John Goodman in Transformers 4, Peter Stormare in Armageddon and Bad Boys 2, and Steve Buscemi in The Island and Armageddon. It does seem, though, that casting is the only area where the Coens and Bay intersect. Unlike the Coens, whose films rarely have any bloat or fat, Bay’s work is long and bombastic, every one of his films seemingly run, at least, a half-hour longer than necessary.

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Like the films of the Coens, Pain & Gain is a story about idiots getting involved in a criminal element which they were unprepared to completely handle. Where the Coens have a certain affection for their overwhelmed criminals, Bay has chosen a project where there’s nothing to like about these morons. Even if this work is Bay’s attempt at satire, his misplaced instincts still take hold. Pain & Gain isn’t a particularly great film, but I think it is Bay’s best and most important work, even if only to serve as validation to Bay’s harshest critics.

A passion project for Bay, Pain & Gain was finally given the green light after Bay made Paramount billions with his Transformers trilogy. Considered a small Bay film – $26 million budget – Pain & Gain is based upon the true story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a moronic meathead, who with the help of two other meatheads, Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), kidnap a Victor Kershaw (Shalhoub), a rich member of the gym the meatheads work at and frequent. After weeks of torture, Kershaw signs over all of his businesses and property to the steroid-fueled criminals. Their plan to kill Kershaw is a spectacular failure. Though he survives, Kershaw is unable to convince the authorities that he was the victim of a crime, so he hires Ed DuBois (Ed Harris), a semi-retired private eye. Before long, Lugo and his cohorts are in need of more money to fund their new lavish lifestyle and set their sights on a phone sex mogul, Frank Griga (Michael Rispoli), and his wife, Krisztina Furton (Kelli Lefkowitz), which results in their grisly murders. Built on a felonious foundation, their house of cards tumbles.

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Intended to be a satire, Pain & Gain still finds Bay unwittingly validating certain viewpoints of its despicable characters. In the opening scenes, Lugo explains that those who waste their potential, namely fat people, are “unpatriotic.” In order to drum up business for the gym that he works at, Lugo offers free gym membership to strippers and free body waxing with new membership. When showing Lugo performing the waxing, Bay has a woman who doesn’t fit Bay’s Victoria’s Secret ideal of femininity show up, pubic hair overflowing from her bikini bottom. If Bay were really interested in subverting Lugo’s viewpoint, and the machismo that he’s associated with, he’d have one of the model-caliber women have the hairy, unkempt genital region. Instead, he validates modern beauty standards and the viewpoint of the murderous lead character.

The film also suffers from significant structural problems. The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based upon the journalistic work of Pete Collins, deviates from the central narrative with flashbacks and narration for almost every character. There aren’t little moments of character. Every character explicitly states their point of view. Whether through indifference or incompetence, Bay doesn’t do little moments. It’s those things that result in his bloated running times. If Pain & Gain were a Coen Brothers film, it’d be a hair over 90 minutes and not over 2 hours. It’s the ultimate proof that Bay’s talents are entirely visceral. Story structure, character, and tone are afterthoughts that are rarely given any thought of in the first place.

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But all is not bleak. Aside from his visual talents, Bay has always excelled at populating his films with great supporting actors. With Pain & Gain, however, Bay has populated the entire film with actors that perfectly fit their roles. Wahlberg channels the depraved decline of Dirk Diggler at the end of Boogie Nights for his portrayal of Lugo. Anthony Mackie proves his rising star status as a steroid abusing, limp-dick chubby chaser. Shalhoub and Harris remind us why they’re some of the best character actors working today. Rob Corddry tones it down for a change, and, sadly, Rebel Wilson as Mackie’s love interest is woefully underwritten.

Despite the talents of everyone else, the real star of this film is Dwayne Johnson. As Paul Doyle, an addict ex-con who has found Jesus and sobriety, Johnson gives what may very well be his best performance to date. One moment Doyle is a ball of fire, pure unadulterated violent rage. In the next, a sweet, kind Christian, truly remorseful for the crimes he’s committed. It’s a balancing act that proves Johnson to be the best actor to ever emerge from the ranks of pro wrestling – sincere apologies to “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (They Live). This movie is worth watching for Johnson’s coke-jaw alone.

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Undoubtedly an imperfect film, Pain & Gain is Bay as he’s never been before. The film features less magic hour photography than any of his prior works, and proves that problems related to story structure and tone are basically innate in the filmmaker. I truly believe that underneath the bombast, the bloat, the frat-boy attitude, lies a sort of self-loathing filmmaker, a wannabe Scorsese or Coen – Matt Singer at The Dissolve discusses that in his Transformers 4 review – who wants to make mature works for a mature audience. We’ve only been provided this one little glimpse into that possible filmmaker. If Pain & Gain were a debut feature, it’d be heralded, yet rightful criticized, as a work from a potentially visionary filmmaker, but Bay has been making movies for almost 20 years. If he wants to reach that next stratosphere, he’ll have to work at it. He’ll have to put away the product placement driven money makers and take some actual risks. He did it once. Whether he does it again remains to be seen. One thing is certain – no pain, no gain.

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