Pain & Gain

April 26, 2013


When I read Pete Collins’ bizarre, incredible “Pain and Gain” story, recounting the events in the mid-90s of the “Sun Gym Gang”, my first thought was, “this is a Coen Brothers film.”  The elements were all there: deluded moron criminals, ever increasing amounts of absurdity, horrific events that seamlessly combine tragedy and farce.  I already knew at the time that it was set to be Michael Bay’s next picture, however, and when I eventually saw the trailer, I predicted it would be crass, stupid, and not at all respectful of the real crimes or the victims.  I was basically right about all of that, and yet…

Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg, buffed up to appropriately sickening levels) is a personal trainer in Miami.  He’s obsessed with bodybuilding and his physique.  He’s troubled by his lack of success in life, especially as he greatly improved the ailing gym at which he works.  Surrounded by beautiful people and rich Floridians has done nothing for his self-esteem, as in spite of his muscles, he hasn’t staked out a “piece of the pie”, as he would put it.   He gets a new client in the swaggering, rude, and rich Colombian immigrant Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), and soon recruits his friends Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson, playing a composite character from the story) to kidnap and eventually torture Kershaw into signing over his house, businesses, and money.  Paul is freshly out of prison, where he discovered both Jesus and sobriety, and his dim-witted niceness is meant to serve as a sympathetic “in” for the audience.  Adrian is something of a bodybuilding failure whose steroid use has caused erectile dysfunction – a true element to the story that is played constantly for laughs by Bay.  He eventually marries the nurse who treats him, Ramona, which has the strange effect of elevating Rebel Wilson’s pretty lame shtick from “Bay humour cameo” into something like an actual character, only she eventually reverts back to the “Bay humour cameo” role in a crucial sequence.

Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay stick remarkably close to the facts, though there are a number of embellishments dotted around, and of course the filming and characterization given by Bay and the actors change things significantly from the tone of the original story, at least as I read it.  Still, these embellishments, though superfluous, are not ruinous.  The utter ridiculousness of buying a chainsaw and then returning it because the chain pulled in the victim’s hair is one of those too-strange-to-be-true details that this film thrives on.  The material is perfect for a black comedy, and though Bay tries his hand at it, he just doesn’t have the sense of humour to make it work the way it should.  He interjects conversations and jokes at the wrong points, falling back on his usual broad, frat-boy impulses that leave the big guy really sensitive, or the fast-talking black guy to get really upset and talk fast, as though the content were less important than the delivery (which normally in comedy, it is, but not so much here).

Despite all of this, I can’t help but think that this is some kind of ideal telling of this story.  There are those that will argue endlessly about “artistic intent” with this film, but for me, I don’t think Bay has a sensitive bone in his body.  Interjecting an extended gag about Adrian’s penis size in the closing trial sequence is indicative of the numerous wrong-headed decisions that went into that making, and for me it illustrates just the kind of thing that attracted him to this tale.  That said, he does know that these characters are ridiculous, and even if he doesn’t mean everything to be a critique of the American Dream, there it is.  His glossy sheen and his extravagant camera movements are all part of the same delusion that Lugo and his motley gang share.  Bay can’t help but shoot the strippers and swimmers in bikinis in the most gaudy, sexually ferocious way he can, because he has the eye of an eighteen year old watching a Girls Gone Wild video.  Bar Paly plays a stripper and girlfriend to both Daniel and Paul, and while it seems hugely offensive that she’s so stupid she thought they were both in the CIA, that is an actual fact.  At the same time, Bay dresses her up and she’s forced to act like the ultimate Blonde Bimbo, and the line between satire and genuine lust is blurred.  I don’t for a second think that Bay sees the culmination of these men’s dreams to be something not worth striving for, but that’s irrelevant to how I watched the film.  The gaudy excess of the visuals and the cutting create the sense of a sickeningly putrid and shallow interpretation of the modern notion of “The American Dream”, and damn it if it’s not apt.

It might be insensitive to the victims, and it might be strange tonally for a real life story about how three people came to be murderers (two of which are on death row), but it’s vulgarity is, perhaps, precisely what is needed.  With his bright colours, slick sets, and action movie trappings, Bay has perhaps unintentionally created some kind of Platonic Ideal for this story, and by extension, that of the wasteland of pathetic American aspirations.  It’s just all so damn ugly in the end, and that’s what this story deserves. One of the most materialist, shallow filmmakers America has ever produced has made a film about some of the most materialist, shallow people America has ever produced, and it all seems so damn fitting that I can’t bring myself to tear it down for its poor humour and tonal failings.  When all is said and done, Michael Bay has put forth what might be the most aggressively Marxist critique of America today, and though he probably didn’t intend it, it is something.



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