Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pain & Gain

Grade: 45/C

I pick on Michael Bay a lot. That doesn’t make me too different from other cinephiles who find Bay’s in-your-face aesthetic grating and his alpha male sensibility a blight upon the medium. But what frustrates me about Bay is that beneath the more-is-more editing and explosions and the crass stupidity lies genuine talent. The man has an eye for beautiful images, and can do truly remarkable things with the camera on a moment-to-moment basis, but he drowns his gifts in gargantuanism. His most recent film, Pain & Gain, is his lowest-budgeted movie since 1995’s Bad Boys ($26 million to the earlier film’s $19 million), and it eschews a number of the problems that plagues his mega-budget efforts. Too bad it can’t get rid of all of them.

Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is an ex-convict working as a trainer at Sun Gym. Lugo is ambitious: he professes to “believe in fitness”, but it isn’t enough to reach bodily perfection. He desires the high-class lifestyle of his rich clients. With fellow trainer Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and rehabilitated coke-addict Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to kidnap condescending millionaire Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), force him to sign over his assets, and leave him for dead. The plan works, except for the last bit, and Kershaw hires private investigator Ed Du Bois, III (Ed Harris) to get his money back. But he’ll barely even have to nudge the three, as they start to fall apart amidst greed, excess, and addiction.

Pain & Gain is Bay’s most performance-driven film. Wahlberg and Mackie throw themselves into their immensely unlikable characters without a hint of vanity (aside from the characters’ vanity, of course), and Johnson lends much-needed sincerity to Paul’s struggles with addiction and childlike faith. It’s actually kind of remarkable that one gets a sense of performance in a Bay film at all, considering how often he chops his scenes to ribbons, but he goes relatively easy on the editing pyrotechnics. And for once, his emphasis on glistening bodies and sleek surfaces makes sense, given the crass materialism meatheaded nature of the world he’s in.

But while Bay’s aesthetic is put to better use than usual in Pain & Gain, he still has the same juvenile sense of humor and penchant for self-indulgence that he’s always had: toilet and dildo jokes abound, and women are still fall in the Madonna or whore categories (with Rebel Wilson going from the latter to the former as Mackie’s plus-sized conquest turned put-upon wife). And while the film aims for satire, its humor is too broad, its tone too smarmy for Bay’s criticism of alpha males and the American Dream to come off as anything but disingenuous.

Bay likely does see the greed and hypocrisy of Lugo and company (who criticize Shalhoub’s character for being a crook), but the comedown is too peppered with cheap jokes and celebration of their stupidity for it to work. It’s like Fargo or Goodfellas reimagined by a guy who doesn’t buy into the “morality” part of the morality tale. This is the closest thing to a good Michael Bay film in some time. That’s not good enough.

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