Monday, May 6, 2013

Pain & Gain

Anthony Mackie, Mark Wahlberg, and Dwayne Johnson in Michael Bay's Pain & Gain
*1/2 out of ****

Pain & Gain is inspired by the true story of three Florida bodybuilders in the mid-nineties, who teamed up to incompetently commit crimes of kidnapping and extortion. With dumb luck, they found surprising success until they wanted more and worked up another scheme that ended in carnage.

Mark Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, the leader of the group, who had a history of con-artistry prior to being employed as a manager/personal trainer at a Florida gym. Lugo takes credit for propelling the gym’s troubled state to enormous success and feels he is great at the job of getting people fit. However, he is unsatisfied, feeling he isn’t living out the “American Dream” -like some of his clients. He feels great frustration when dealing with the wealthy ones - like Victor Kershaw, played by Tony Shalhoub. Kershaw brags about his wealth and the dirty tricks he’s used to obtain it, making him the winner Lugo envies.

Lugo works up a scheme to kidnap Kershaw and recruits the help of two gym regulars - who he knows will be tempted by the reward. The first is Adrian Doorbal, portrayed by Anthony Mackie, whose steroid addiction has led to issues of impotence that can only be remedied by an expensive procedure. The other is an ex-con, played by Dwayne Johnson, who has purged his old habits of cocaine and burglary, and is a born-again Christian –but a very broke one. What follows are a series of black comedy scenarios of kidnapping and cruelty. Very soon, a private detective, played by Ed Harris, will be investigating them.

The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (YouKill Me) has a lot of great one-liners and cleverly uses multiple narrators through the film’s characters to connect us with their motivations. The cast is unquestionably talented - including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who I’ve always felt is underrated for his acting abilities due to a bad resume of stupid family films (I call it Brendan Fraser Syndrome).

The film I’ve described definitely sounds like a bizarre crime story of comic proportions reminiscent of certain Cohen Brothers outings. SO WHY DO I HATE IT?

If there is an art to dark comedy, director Michael Bay is oblivious to it. Then again, his entire career has proved, even through simple-minded mega-budget adventure flicks, that he is also clueless as to what makes a person interesting… or even likeable.

I hate Michael Bay. For me, he’s a director who can do no right. So maybe I have no business reviewing his films, but my distain leaves me obsessed with the guy. I’ve watched his movies, from Armageddon to the Transformers franchise, trying to detect some redeeming aspect of his artistry that might shine through his work. Every film of his, embraces a world of egotistical, materialistic, stripper-obsessed, homophobic, American-supremacist psychopaths with whom we are expected to identify.

Then there is his craft, which utilizes the sophisticated cinematography and kinetic editing of the half-minute commercials with which he started his directorial career, that in feature-length form, I find to be obnoxious, headache-inducing and graceless.

Regardless of all these things, people like his movies. And this one will definitely find its big audience -even movie fans I respect among them. Some will say that this is Bay at his best, grounding himself with a real story set in the real world. To me, it is just as overblown as one of his Transformers movies, lacking in intellect and emotion.

Nowhere in this film, do we see a small robot dry-humping a girl’s leg, but we do get Rebel Wilson, who is supposed to be funny because she’s fat, makes pornographic references, and has a British accent.

One may say, "Who better than a director with no class to tell the story of a sleazy group of people?" To be fair, it is a step in the right direction for him - but only a small step. I love Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow, a story with characters submerged in sleaze but is told with empathy that allows us to see the human beings beneath.

Bay doesn’t have the right kind of mind or respect for an audience to present a story like this with the sense of irony that the screenplay probably called for. His setups can look beautiful and colorful but they’re never in tune with a sense of meaning. He just wants his shots to look good and his movie to be on a constant sugar-buzz, regardless of what any particular scene is about.

What ultimately doesn’t work for me in this movie is the conceit that it is making some sort of cultural commentary on American greed and stupidity but just looks like a big commercial for both.


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