Michael Bay is Hollywood’s preeminent vulgarian. With movies like Armageddon and Transformers, he specializes in slick imagery that turns a gleaming gaze on people and technology with the same slobbering glee, an objectification that turns everything into button-pushing jolts of spectacle, collateral damage, and queasy humor that leans on distasteful stereotypes more often than not. This sometimes leads to enjoyable movies, sometimes not, but it certainly makes him the right person to direct Pain & Gain, a based-on-a-true-story caper about some lunkheads with big small dreams who basically imagine themselves the heroes of their own Michael Bay movie. His proudly juvenile adrenaline machines in which an outsized id runs free through a glamorously ugly caricature world fits with a story so grotesque and unbelievable it simply must be true (or at least exaggerated from the truth).
The action takes place in Miami during 1994 and 1995. There at the time Bay was filming his feature debut, the cop buddy action comedy Bad Boys. So, alas, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), the main character of this movie, instead cites Rocky, Scarface and The Godfather as his cinematic motivation. He, conveniently forgetting the ultimate fate of the protagonists of those films, thinks of them as good examples of guys who made something of themselves, something to aspire to as he prepares to chase his American dream: lots of money, lots of things, and lots of pretty women. He has what he thinks is a great get-rich-quick plan, a sure-fire all-American, get-what’s-coming-to-him windfall. When questioned about his scheme he says, “I’ve watched a lot of movies. I know what I’m doing.”
And what is Daniel's plot? He has happened to gain a new client, rich jerk Victor (Tony Shalhoub), who walked into Sun Gym looking for a personal trainer. He’s the kind of guy who says, “You know who invented salads? Poor people.” He’s not a nice guy. Daniel's idea is to recruit two of his co-workers, the steroidal Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and the born-again Paul (Dwayne Johnson), to help kidnap Victor, make him sign over all his assets blindfolded, and then return him to his routine unable to do anything about it. That sounds easy enough, if rather implausible and with countless details that need to be worked out. But Daniel doesn’t seem to notice those and his partners in crime don’t ask many questions. They all think they’re about to get rich beyond their wildest dreams. Here’s a group of guys smart enough to cook up a scheme, but too dumb to get away unscathed.
The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely gives us overlapping narration from all three men and their victim, giving us four perspectives on the events as they unfold. The dissonance between the confidence they constantly speak to us and each other, the pumped-up sheen of Bay’s filmmaking, and the string of dumb decisions they proceed to make provides a recipe for a savage pitch black comedy. When things start to go wrong, as you know they must, it turns into a kind of humid, sun-baked Fargo. (There’s a nasty bit of business with a pile of dismembered limbs that rivals that film’s wood chipper scene.) Bay shoots it all with a smug satisfaction, snickering at these meatheads for buying so whole-heartedly into the American dream of having it all and getting away with it that they can’t see it’s a lie with which all truly successful people learn to compromise. Early on, Wahlberg attends a lecture from a transparently phony motivational speaker (Ken Jeong) and leaves feeling nothing but starry-eyed confidence. Yes, he thinks, even he can make his dreams of obscene wealth come true. That he should go about it in a brutal, haphazard, illegal way is a source of the humor, but in the insistence that perhaps he’s a fool to try anything at all, the film is cynical, nihilistic social satire to its core.
There are no heroes here. The criminals are misguided lugs impossible to root for. Their victim is a smarmy slimeball who’s impossible to wish victory upon. Bay puts the audience in the sometimes uncomfortable position of simply watching the gears of plot turn on these awful people. The late edition of a private eye played by Ed Harris as a weary pragmatist and the only person of professional competence in the whole movie and as such seems to be subtextually shaking his head at the sad weirdness of it all, like Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, does much to help cut through the ugliness. But what sometimes beautiful ugliness! Bay’s muscular showiness is put to good use here, laying out tawdry, glittery lifestyles of the almost rich and gaudily infamous-in-their-own-minds, lives that play out sadly in gyms, strip clubs, and on Floridian beaches.
There’s huge entertainment to be had in the rapid-fire montage that keeps the pace speedy throughout the entire two-hour-plus runtime and the collision of light performances with the heavy dark violence and vulgarity. Instead of risking the audience lose track of his satirical point, Bay makes it quite clear that he’s in on the joke. As brutish satire, it makes its jabs early and finds only ways to repeat them thereafter. Luckily the performers (I haven’t even mentioned fun supporting roles filled by Rob Corddry, Bar Paly and Rebel Wilson) are agile and funny and the story itself is strange and unpredictable enough to keep things interesting. It’s a credit to the great cast, twisty plot, and Bay’s aggressively watchable, just-shy-of garishly colorful style that I didn’t grow tired. I didn’t love it or loathe it, but I think I had fun.