Sunday, May 05, 2013

Film Review: Pain & Gain (2013)

Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a trainer at the Sun Gym in Miami, Florida. He's a smart guy who believes that hard work will pay off if you believe in what you are working towards, be it killer deltoids or a nice house with a big lawn. But Lugo's been knocked back a few times in life, not least of all because of his white collar criminal past, in which he used his intelligence to defraud people of a lot of money. Given a second chance by the gym's owner (Rob Corddry), Lugo starts looking for his shot at the big time.

He finds it in the form of Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a local businessman with a slightly shady side. Along with Paul Doyle (The "Dwayne Johnson" Rock) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), a pair of fellow bodybuilders from the gym, Lugo sets in motion an audacious scheme: kidnap Kershaw, torture him until he signs over everything he owns, then release him back into the wild without a penny to his name. It's just the beginning of the troubles awaiting the hapless trio and, by extension, the poor, unfortunate audience.

The most, possibly only, interesting thing about Pain & Gain from a critical perspective is the question of whether it is worse as a depiction of terrible events that happened to real people, or as a piece of entertainment - a term I use guardedly and reluctantly - in its own right. It fails spectacularly at both, but getting down to determining which it fails most egregiously at is the critical equivalent of quantum physics. We're dealing with differences so minute that it's almost impossible to see them.

The film is based on a series of articles by Pete Collins which appeared in the Miami New Times in late 1999 and early 2000. The series depicts in very deliberate, compelling detail how the Sun Gym gang made millions from their first kidnapping, managed to evade the police, who disbelieved their victim, and the detective (played in the film by Ed Harris) who believed him but couldn't get the police to take him seriously, and were then able to commit subsequent, even more horrifying crimes. The articles are darkly funny and manage to indict the greed of the gang and the bureaucratic incompetence of the Miami Police while maintaining a great sensitivity towards the suffering of the victims.

What's quite impressive is how Bay has managed to make a film which is none of these things, despite being largely faithful to the events themselves. As with any adaptation, there are some cosmetic changes here and there. Most notable is the decision to combine two separate individuals into the character of Paul Doyle, allowing The Rock to play a man struggling with his Christian faith when the real men had no such issues, as well as changing the gang's hideout to a warehouse full of sex aids. A change seemingly made solely for the purpose of tasteless jokes and one staggeringly pointless homophobic remark.

The most crucial differences, however, are ones of tone, character and intent, all of which ultimately render the film's repeated claims to fidelity completely laughable, if not outright insulting. In Bay's film, Lugo, Doyle and Doorbal are dunderheads with dreams as big as their quads. They want to live the high life. They want fast cars, beautiful women and cash they can bathe in. In short, they want to seize the American Dream and bench press the living fuck out of it.

The problem, though, is that the real story wasn't one in which a bunch of idiots who got in over their heads and for whom murder was an accidental necessity, but one about a group of calculating sociopaths who had murder built into the core of their plan. By shifting the focus, Bay tries to make his central trio sympathetic, and even has the gall to stage their eventual arrests as a tragic fall from grace. But these were not good men led astray; they were cruel, violent misanthropes who pursued their greed to fatal conclusions.

Not only does Bay betray the fantastic origins of the story, he also betrays his own stated intent. The film seems to be posited as a black comedy, a kind of Ealing farce set in an orange and teal hellscape, populated by slimy degenerates, none of whom are deserving of our sympathy. There also seems to be a satirical edge to it, primarily in following this testosterone-enhanced triumvirate as they turn the hokey bromides of a self-help guru (a mercifully underused Ken Jeong) and a general belief that the American Dream is all about taking what you want, and using them to justify horrible violence. Unfortunately, Michael Bay lacks a certain nuance required to carry off the balance between depicting the characters as human beings with wants and needs and showing that what they're doing is horrible. Maybe it's just me, but I don't equate nuanced satire with beating a man with a large dildo.

It's not an impossible balance; Chris Morris managed much the same trick in his hilarious, deeply sad suicide bomber comedy Four Lions. But Bay has such a tin ear for comedy (the only really funny line in the whole film comes from Doyle describing his God-given talents) and such a completely tone-deaf approach to satire, that he winds up creating a film which isn't funny, and revels in the stupid violence of its characters without seeming to have any point to make about the violence.

Inevitably, his "every shot is a money shot" aesthetic, as well as rendering pretty much every use of slow-motion or an unusual camera angle meaningless, results in every action being Awesome. (Also, it's telling that Bay only seems to really perk up any time a scene requires a scantily clad woman to pose suggestively: if nothing else, he remains America's foremost non-hardcore pornographer.) The police coming to arrest them: Awesome. Scenes of torture: Awesome. Scenes of them doing nothing: Awesome. Nothing they do is anything other than Awesome, and that prevents it from having any iota of insight or wit. In its final moments, it tries to throw a shade of redemption on proceedings, but what it really seems to be saying is that it's totally cool to kidnap and murder people because that's America.

But it's not a cynical indictment of that idea, it's an earnest celebration of it! There's a moment very early in the film where Lugo lists his heroes, men who were self-made and built a place in the world for themselves. Among the names listed are Tony Montana from Brian De Palma's Scarface, a film equally as troubling as Pain & Gain in its skewed attempt to denounce and laud violence for violence's sake, and the cast of The Godfather. It seems like the film is making a cheeky comment on the moral compass of Lugo; showing that he views these characters as self-made men while disregarding their methods, in the process imagining himself as a similar badass and justifying his pursuit of happiness by any means necessary. It actually doubles as an illustration of Michael Bay's approach to the story: he genuinely seems to view the characters as people worth caring about, to the extent of making their victims look like villains for not giving up their money and/or dying cleanly.

Even the darkest moments - such as one in which corpses have to be dismembered - are staged as slapstick. Whereas in the original articles, that moment is described in gripping, clinical and disgusting detail, here it is played as broad as possible. Bay shows his customary disregard for human life throughout, but that scene is particularly grim, both in terms of the shabby surroundings and the way in which the real-life death of a human being is re-staged as a set-up for bad jokes.

Pain & Gain is aesthetically, morally and comedically bankrupt. It's a crass, torrid and unpleasant journey through the life of three morons who tried to get rich through acts of cold-blooded murder, re-imagined as a knockabout romp full of toilet humour, upskirt shots and incessant slow-motion. In short, it's the best film that Michael Bay has made in the last ten years, and easily one of the worst you are likely to see this year. If you really want to know the story, read Pete Collins' original articles. Not only do they display more wit, nuance and sensitivity than Bay's head-poundingly stupid film, but it will take you less time to read them than to watch this insufferable migraine of a movie.

Grade: D-