'Pain and Gain': Morally bankrupt, devilishly entertaining
Contrary to pre-release hype, "Pain and Gain" is not a particularly "quirky" or "character-driven" movie. Although director Michael Bay, he of the "Transformers" pop monstrosities, made the movie for a fraction of what those cinematic mammoths cost, it does not really represent him "going low-budget." Nor, as some have suggested, does this effort represent some kind of attempt on Bay's part to "atone for his sins." If anything, "Pain and Gain, " which twists the facts of an appalling 1995 Florida kidnapping and murder case until its story achieves the dimensions of a grotesque, multiple-billboard-size cartoon, adds a whole roster of sins to Bay's CV. But in doing its unwholesome work the movie manages to be devilishly entertaining, and, perhaps inadvertently, to achieve the status of genuine satire, even against itself.
The time is 1995, the place is Miami, and as an opening text informs the audience, the story about to unfold in this neon-bright setting is "unfortunately" true. Mark Wahlberg plays a pumped-up lunk named Danny Lugo, whose past includes some unsavory scams but who appears sincere when he avers in voiceover "I believe in fitness." His current job as a trainer at a not-entirely-upscale Miami gym isn't affording him the lifestyle he thinks he deserves. So, pumped up into reinventing himself as a "doer" thanks to the inspiration of an ultra-obnoxious motivational speaker (Ken Jeong in a relatively deft cameo), he concocts a very elemental get-rich-quick scheme: kidnap a rich client he doesn't much like (Tony Shalhoub) and just take all of his stuff.
As depicted in the film, Shalhoub's fictionalized character is a vulgar nouveau-riche lout. Initially, the earnest greed of Lugo and his buff-guys-have-problems-too accomplices (one a steroid freak with concomitant functional masculinity issues played by Anthony Mackie, the other a born-again recovering-addict felon who's not really working his program right, played by Dwayne Johnson) is presented as a genuine yearning for a corrupted iteration of what's called "the American dream." This is problematic, purposefully so. Watching oversize-movie-star heroes idiotically enacting the works of genuine moral monsters is the primary purpose of this twisted movie's scheme. Director Bay himself is somewhat known for his love of fast cars and nubile, empty-headed women; that this movie mocks its protagonists for their drooling, and temporarily successful, pursuit of same may seem hypocritical, but I think there's something more mordantly cynical than mere two-facedness happening in "Pain and Gain."
The characters' room temperature IQs and venal imaginations (fueled and degraded by pop-culture bromides and clichés), not to mention their newfound ability to burn through large sums of cash, pushes them from imprisoning and torturing Shalhoub into even more dire crimes (and they get very dire). "Pain and Gain" builds momentum with perhaps-too-convincing depictions of how twisted, zero-moral-compass situations can go from bad to worse, and worse still. At the same time it tries to milk slapstick laughs out of such Hollywood-obvious gag setups such as the obese medical assistant who rocks the sexual world of the steroid-depleted Mackie. While Bay's sensationalistic filmmaking mode doesn't yield results as definitively nerve-racking and ultimately haunting as the notorious "Sister Christian" scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights," there are oodles of this-s--t-is-f---ed-up moments to repel the viewer. At one particularly gruesome point, a title card pops up to remind us that this is "still" a true story, served up with a visual brio that appears to valorize the consumerist mode of spiritual emptiness that the lead characters aspire to, all the while believing that they are the good guys. (Once a real good guy shows up, a detective played by Ed Harris, he too is a kind of commonplace figure straight out of "The Rockford Files.")
A fellow critic has protested that Michael Bay is not a sufficiently sophisticated filmmaker to pull off such a cunning piece of cinematic bluffery, but he doesn't have to be. The pacing and the imagery (nearly every frame is so packed with musculature and make-it-big status symbols that they all come off like variations of James Rosenquist's hilarious pop-art murals) push against the horror of what the characters are doing to create a giddy evocation of spectacle hell. The deck-stacked world of "Pain and Gain" is, yes, probably very unfair to the real-life victims of the real-life crimes it depicts; the movie's no-one-is-innocent point is delivered with the smirk of a "win ugly" quarterback. But Bay's intimacy with the very emptiness he depicts gives his vision a value of particularity that could not be applied by an aesthetically ascetic moral scold. Behind the lunatic corruption of "Pain And Gain" there's a kind of monstrous clarity. Do with it what you will.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.