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Entries in Pain & Gain [2013] (1)


Pain & Gain (2013)

Won't Power

Note: This review is almost two weeks late. Not that anyone's keeping track, but Pain & Gain sprung up as an unexpected personal wall that I must break through and move past.

Melodrama abounds!

I left the theatre fully prepared to get this ugly motion picture out of my head by writing about it. But as hours turned into days, rival fronts of apathy and anger showered my Critic Brain in depression. Everything came to a halt--creaking back to life just long enough to churn out an Iron Man 3 review, which I attribute to two factors:

  1. I loved that movie.
  2. Out of boredom and frustration, I randomly tallied the number of reviews I've written in the last three-plus years and realized that Pain & Gain had come dangerously close to being number six-hundred. I couldn't let that happen, in good conscience.

So, here we stand, together, at the precipice of...something.

Enough stalling.

Let's rip the Band-aid on this motherfucker...

Stop. If you haven't read "Pain & Gain", Pete Collins' gripping three-part story that originally appeared in The Miami New Times, I implore you to do so before reading my take on Michael Bay's big-screen adaptation. It's a long piece, sure, but the key to understanding how severely the director and screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) botched their tale of sadistic Miami juice-heads is to read its stranger-than-fiction origin.

"Pain & Gain" is about Daniel Lugo, a grifter and fitness fanatic who traded the unrewarding, hard work of swindling old people out of their life savings for a get-rich-quick career kidnapping and torturing millionaires. He roped in a few dimwitted buddies and, over the course of several months, lived the high life: dating strippers, taking possession of McMansions and prototype sports cars, and posing as CIA operatives to keep their new neighbors from getting suspicious. It's a great premise for a thriller, or a blacker-than-black comedy--one the Coen Brothers or Michael Mann could easily sink their teeth into.

Unfortunately, we're dealing with Michael Bay who, not content with being the Boss of Box Office Brainlessness, has tried his hand at non-Happy-Meal filmmaking. I'd applaud him for the effort, were the results not so offensively disastrous and disastrously offensive. Even if you have no knowledge of or connection to the events that inspired this story, there's no getting around the fact that Pain & Gain is a sloppy, mean-spirited movie posing as satire--the equivalent of a six-year-old boy who thinks saying "shit" at the dinner table constitutes adult conversation.

Mark Wahlberg plays Lugo, a beefy, charismatic entrepreneur who narrates his dramatic caper, which begins with a dream in late 1994 and culminates with his arrest (and subsequent death sentence) in June of 1995. He manages Florida's Sun Gym, but pines for the respect and extravagant lifestyle of the rich assholes he's forced to train every day. Enter Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), a cranky little man whose fortune was built on a Schlotzky's Deli franchise and mysterious overseas businesses. He's a joke at the gym: wiry, old, and pompous--just the kind of jerk that Lugo decides doesn't deserve everything he has.

Long, dull story (as told by Bay and company) short, Lugo teams up with steroid abuser/best-friend Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and muscle-bound ex-con/newly-born Christian Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to kidnap and torture Kershaw until he eventually signs over all of his assets to them. They also force him to call his wife and confess to a fictitious affair, which compels her to take their son back to Columbia--thereby freeing up the family's home for its new occupants. Things go well for the Sun Gym gang until Doyle relapses into a nasty cocaine habit; drained of cash, the three buff-oons target a mega-rich porn magnate (Michael Rispoli) and get themselves into exponentially more trouble.

From a technical standpoint, Pain & Gain is very well made. Bay is nothing if not a brash stylist who shoots every bikini-wearing woman as a sex goddess, every leading man as an animated bronze monument, and every location as a cross between a beer commercial set and heaven, as produced by MTV's head of reality programming. In less grotesque hands, this aesthetic would have been perfect for the material.

What's missing is an understanding that Lugo's story is neither the stuff of hero worship nor broad comedy. Bay is essentially still playing to his Transformers audience, but thanks to an "R" rating, he's able to infuse his movie with what I can only imagine is a personal brand of homophobia, misogyny, and general naked disgust for anyone not like him (it's a theory based on Bay's filmography and the source material's lack of any of those things).

Though the main characters are unlikable, they're presented as charismatic anti-heroes--whereas every woman who appears on-screen (with the exception of Emily Rutherfurd, who plays the nodding housewife of Ed Harris' private eye character) is a naive dunce whose sole purpose is to be screwed and screwed over by men. Every guy who isn't the model of physical perfection is gross-looking and implicitly gay. And God help you if you're overweight or a midget in Bayworld: you're either going to be exploited for laughs by being squeezed into "sexy" lingerie while riding a skinny black dude (a signal for barking-seal approval from the Maury crowd, no doubt); turned into a screaming caricature of mental illness who can't control their bowels; or reduced to a sight gag ('cuz, y'know, different-looking people are hilarious, bro).

This isn't just armchair psychology, folks. The auditorium in which I watched this thing was livelier than a Spring Break body-shot competition--complete with rubes who repeated lines; laughed at people being tortured and gays getting punched repeatedly in the face; and loudly asserted their ability to read ("Oh my God! His shirt says 'Team Jesus'! Ha ha ha! Oh my God!"). Then there were also the sub-morons who never developed an appropriate decibel level for public laughter, and the totally-not-fucking-queer packs of Dudes who sat with empty seats between them. Half-way through, I wondered if Pain & Gain was some kind of sociology experiment--would I make it to the parking lot without being gassed?

Worse yet, Bay eggs on these cretins by dropping in cute reminders that he's telling a "true story". Very little about Pain & Gain the movie resembles "Pain & Gain" the article (which, admittedly, was filtered through the mind of a journalist and the accounts of those he'd interviewed). So many of the facts have been changed, rearranged, or woven anew that it's criminal to give the audience license to believe what they're seeing.

Bay and company know this. The last damning bit of evidence comes in the closing "Where Are They Now" montage: the real-life identity of the Kershaw character is not revealed, in order to "protect the victim". But shell-shocked former businessman Marc Schiller's name is all over the Miami New Times piece--meaning, in essence, that the filmmakers are banking on their audience relying on them to deliver the truth of the true story ("Duuude! That's crazy! I bet he's in witness protection or something!").

Don't try telling me this movie is a satire, that all the gay-bashing, women-using, cavalier violence is meant to represent the mind-set of the characters. In order for that to be true, there needs to be some indication that the artist condemns his subject matter, or is trying to make a greater point about society's complicity in allowing such horrible things to take root; all signs point to Bay's endorsement of the take-what-you-think-is-yours mentality--which is fine, I suppose. But it ain't satire. In Living Color was satire. Amos & Andy was racist garbage masquerading as comedy.

It's fitting that Pain & Gain was the last flick out of the gate before summer-movie season. Not exciting enough to be a blockbuster, and not smart enough to be an Oscar contender, Paramount quietly sharted it onto the late-Spring slate. Fully aware that the movie would make just enough money to not be a complete embarrassment, I'm sure some executive somewhere was relieved when Iron Man 3 swooped in on a half-billion-dollar current, clearing the attention-span pathway for real movies, like the reboot of Star Trek 2.