Pain & Gain (2013) stands at the intersection of satire, true crime, comedy, and action. That’s a difficult intersection to conduct. In the hands of a maestro, it can be a beautiful dance of humanity, reality, and drama fulfilling an ambitious project and giving the audience a truly great experience. Instead, we have Michael Bay turning the whole thing into a roundabout and conducting it like a twelve year old on cocaine. If you only had two of those paths crossing, even a honey-baked ham fist like Bay could make it work but add just one more, let alone two, and we’ve got ourselves a pile up. Blissfully, it’s only property damage. It was just BAM, POW!
“What just happened?”
“Sir, you’ve been in a Michael Bay film.”
“Jesus, was anybody hurt?”
“No, everybody’s fine, but your Lamborghini is totaled.”
“Have a good weekend Mr. Wahlberg, you’re gunna need it.”
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a meathead with an ambition far exceeding his actual brain capacity. He wants to be like us—I know that because Ed Harris narrated it to me at the end—and is willing to get there by what most would consider unethical means. Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) looks up to Lugo and just wants to get big (while taking steroids which have an inverse effect in certain respects). Lugo is a personal trainer and with his new client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), Lugo gets an idea. Take Kershaw’s money and property and then keep it. Kershaw is by all accounts a jerk, so it’s not that big of a crime. For unclear reasons, they need a third man, so they get an ex-con reborn in the life of Christ, Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) who keeps asking whether people picked their toes in Poughkeepsie. Oh wait, that’s a better movie. American dream, y’all! Oh wait, that’s a different movie too.
What this movie has got is elements. It’s got elements pouring out of every porous orifice there is. My favorite is the slam-to-unsaturated image with a little message typed in. Doyle says something in sympathy with Kershow. SLAM! “The Weak Link”. Laugh. It’s a great device and they use it randomly from then on to great effect. One of them is absolutely brilliant but I won’t ruin it for you. Weird thing is that it first appears about forty minutes into proceedings. I also like the narration sometimes. Something you don’t realize until the third viewing of Goodfellas (1990) is that 80% of the movie is a narration. That movie, though, spans about thirty years while this movie spans a couple months and instead of one or two voices, we get five or six voices. Forgive me, Mr. Bay, if I didn’t recognize a purpose for these narrations over the course of your 2 hour, 10 minute bulldozing effort, but if I tried to carve together a motive an hour after I left the theater, I’d be doing your job for you. Reworking the film to throw out the pieces that don’t quite fit from my memory in the way you should have cut them from the film.
Problem: Too many elements. It isn’t just the amount, it’s the way they act against each other.
You know what I don’t like about Michael Bay? The way he invites ad hominem attacks. With your patience, I’d like to indulge in a little ad hominem against Mr. Bay. Bay got in a squabble with Megan Fox four years ago and I remember one piece of it very well. It forever destroyed Bay as a person of value in my eyes. Fox said Bay relied on special effects rather than acting for his films—point one to Fox—and Bay said she had a lot of growing up to do. Bay went on to say “Nick Cage wasn’t a big actor when I cast him, nor was Ben Affleck before I put him in Armageddon (1998). Shia LaBeouf wasn’t a big movie star before he did Transformers (2007)—and then he exploded. Not to mention Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, from Bad Boys (1995).” Two of those guys won Oscars before they teamed up with him. And hey, two months after Bad Boys came out, they started principal photography for Independence Day (1996). Coincidence? Almost certainly. But who knows, the $65m grossing Bad Boys might have been, in some way, a bigger hit than the $306m grossing Independence Day. You see what you did there, Bay, you made me lower myself into comparing box office takings as some kind of measure. Then again, to measuring “star status”, it’s probably okay to use the box office.
With respect to Pain & Gain, which is why we’re joined here today, I have some particular bones that need picking. It isn’t that it’s hypocrisy, it’s that he doesn’t get it-you can’t just hold up “American dream” to a mug shot and think you made a point because your movie makes the point (or should). Though there’s also hypocrisy. The events in the film happened a year before Bay’s big break with Bad Boys. Bad Boys is about a guy, played by Will Smith, that is super rich and just wants to be a cop so he can catch bad guys and be a bad ass. The plot is about murder, drugs, and blowing things up. Bay’s work is comprised of the false American dream the last ten minutes of this movie is about. And when it’s Bay with his “voice” (read: camera revolving around a posturing man) trying to tell this story, it’s self-parody. That quote from 2009 about finding actors is like something right out of the mouth of Danny Lugo. It’s like he doesn’t realize how dumb he’s being. Neither Bay nor Lugo are truly stupid, they can do certain things but it’s their ambition that ruins them both. “Wow,” says John Mese (Rob Corddry), interviewing Lugo, “triple my membership in three months, that’s a big promise.” “Well,” says Lugo, “I’m the kind of guy where my reach exceeds my grasp.” I’m not sure they know what that means.
But these are deeper matters that almost don’t matter in a Bay movie. Who cares? What’s the movie like? Well, it’s an incredible story. It was simply made for cinema and it’s a wonder that it took a dozen years since the series of articles (here) were written in late 1999 by Pete Collins. The plot is great. The expression is mixed. Or mixed up. And that’s bleeding into my writing about it. These guys are pretty stupid, but they’re doing something incredibly serious. That’s the definition of dark comedy. When do stupid people realize that they’re doing serious things? Always. It’s their failure to respond rationally that makes them stupid. What Bay screws up is in not making the actors show that throughout. So when one of the characters has a revelation of sorts, it’s like it happened right then out of the blue.
I can’t tell how much to blame on writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. They packed the script tightly with loaded narration—not bad loaded, but with too many one sentence meaningfuls. “I’m Daniel Lugo and I believe in fitness.” “We’re so much better when we wing it.” “People are going to want to know why you did it.” They jump from the darkly comic to broad comedy to the deeply thoughtful so quickly that it’s hard to know what kind of movie you’re watching.
So are the tonal problems at the writers’ feet? In part. It’s Bay that takes the biggest slice of the pie of blame. First, and most damaging, is the editing (with Tom Muldoon and Joel Negron). It is blazing fast and this is mostly not an action movie. Most of the movie is conversation about doing the kidnapping or dealing with the kidnapping. Really, it’s like the breathing space happens when the trio walks slowly away from an exploding car. That’s actually a really good scene to introduce the second major damage point: the look. When they’ve gotten the goods, they’ve got to dispose of Kershaw and this is the guy that just won’t die. That’s the gag. Except that every time they try to kill him, it’s like the first time. They don’t build on their experience and get exasperated and workmanlike. Every time, they’re pumped up and the camera vrooms along with each attempt. The action ran over the comedy.
What is most annoying, however, is that we begin with a perfect blend of shaky close-up and smooth slow motion blended with the thoughtful sounds of Steve Jablonsky that we see in the trailer and then very rarely return to it. In between, the vast majority of the movie is Bad Boys redux. Super low camera angle revolving around posturing beefcake, silhouette against a burning sunset, with all the slippery plastic of Miami. Bay with cinematographer Ben Seresin start so well, like End of Watch (2012) meets Luc Besson, but then give up entirely with Jablonsky hitting the relentless hammer and everyone working from the old playbook where they think zooming the camera through cracks in the wall (over and over again) is going to trick people into thinking this is a visual feast. You should have spent more time smoothing out the narrative edges and calming the pace rather than thinking up new ways to make it look like the camera is going through a broken window.
The performances, taken in the instant, are very good. Wahlberg has made a career out of playing the lovable, doltish hunk who thinks he’s smarter than he is. Unlike Bay, though, Wahlberg has another half to that career with seriously good work. Johnson is almost there. This is, I think, the first movie I’ve seen him playing an actual role where he isn’t just the infinitely capable hulk. This guy is a moron and Johnson plays it to the full, perhaps to the point of caricature. I don’t think anyone doubts that Mackie, Shalhoub, or Ed Harris are real actors. They are and they do their bit in their bit parts. Corddry was good at being relatively normal and avoiding any over-acting. Can’t say the same about Rebel Wilson or Ken Jeong who I think sink the movie. Whoah! Overstatement? No, I think not. These two can’t turn it off. They can’t even turn it down. This is a true crime story where you’re allowed to be stupid, but you aren’t allowed to do your own surrealist comedy. Wilson goes on this little over-honest bit that probably made Michael Bay laugh so he kept it in the movie. I read that Johnson slapped a anatomically correct female sculpture and Bay commented “He nailed it.” That’s in the movie too, but that’s a normal response to an odd situation. Telling a courtroom intimate details of an oddly specific nature about Doorbal’s personal effects. To hell with tone and realism! We’re saturating the colors, after all.
Then I read a little bit of the article to see if the courtroom scene had some basis—it didn’t—and found something else. The final moments of the film that give an Ed Harris sum up with everyone’s sentencing were also, pointlessly, changed. Mese got 56 years instead of dying in prison on a 15 year sentence. Why change that? A very interesting detail was that Kershaw, or Schiller as is his real name, was arrested immediately after the trial for Medicare fraud on the scale of $14m. I don’t think that got mentioned—possibly an unfounded fear of libel. But mostly, I think, because they didn’t know what story they had. They spent two hours on a crazy, but relatively simple story of three morons committing serious crimes and didn’t think of the trial as anything other than dénouement. What’s worse is that they didn’t even know how to put that story together.
Maybe I should see it again. I thought it was going to be good. I really did.
I got the RPX treatment this morning. Regal Premium Experience (which apparently starts with X for purposes of acronym). It’s Regal’s answer to the IMAX Experience (which, without looking it up, almost certainly has a massive red X brushed in)—if you like loud and you like screens as big as they used to be, but considerably bigger than normal because we’ve reduced screen sizes to squeeze space out of our crummy, poorly kept theaters, you’re going to LOVE this new experience we’ll charge you $4 extra for which should, by all accounts, be normal price. During a Pacific Rim (2013)-themed promo, Regal declares “GO BIG or Go Home” and, by God, audiences answered. There were three people in the theater with me.