Given that Michael Bay’s name is synonymous with deafening, overbudgeted sexist swill to the point where it even inspired a tuneful song about his suckitude in the South Park guys’ Team America: World Police, I often find myself in the position of defending him somewhat. Apart from Pearl Harbor and the synapse-frying second Transformers picture, he’s not that bad. Sometimes he’s even really good — his work is smashing, in all senses. Now he hits new levels of both artistry and sleaziness in the black comedy Pain & Gain, which I strongly recommend if you don’t overvalue taste, subtlety, and moral decency. I liked it.
Actually, the movie is not entirely unsubtle. Its star, Mark Wahlberg, is a comedian of surprising refinement. His secret is that he plays everything straight, finding a razor’s edge between bovine thickness and predatory cunning. As Florida personal trainer Daniel Lugo, his hair stands up in sweet ragamuffin spikes; he looks so dopey and innocent that you can’t believe he’d hatch a scheme to kidnap and seize all of the assets of a gym client, a half-Jewish, half-Colombian whole-asshole named Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub).
Ah, but Lugo is a man who believes that not to "go for it" is positively unpatriotic. The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on magazine articles by Pete Collins based on — the titles inform us not once but twice — a true story) lays out the sociological parameters from the start. Lugo explains in voice-over that we are all born equal (physically and mentally) and can with sufficient singlemindedness and effort become, in effect, supermen and live in luxury. It emerges that to attain this American dream he will have to steal from Americans with similar dreams, but he does not — in the best Cato Institute tradition — let that slow him down. Let others feel the pain.
Dwayne Johnson plays Lugo’s partner in crime, Paul Doyle, an ex-con, ex-cokehead, and eternal meathead who has found Christ but also has had to cold-cock the priest who awakened and then put the moves on him. Johnson is broader than Wahlberg in both style and physique, his neck being wider than my shoulders. But there’s something very likable about him. Anthony Mackie is the third and even dimmer partner, whose penis we’re informed has shrunk on account of steroid use. The actor — here channeling Eddie Murphy — has not yet fulfilled the promise of Half Nelson and The Hurt Locker, but I imagine it’s hard to turn down a Michael Bay paycheck. It’s the American Dream.
This is Bay as we’ve not seen before, attempting a tour de force of style — montage plus narration in the tradition of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and such Danny Boyle hot-dog pictures as Trainspotting and the recent Trance. The Bay touch is the many shots from behind the long thighs and small butts of women in the gym and elsewhere, although he adds some Rebel Wilson cheesecake (she’s a nurse who likes black guys) to prove that big, small, he loves ‘em all, or at least loves exploiting them for laughs.
Ken Jeong plays a seminar-leading financial evangelist who ridicules “maybe” guys and counsels those who drink in his wisdom (including Wahlberg’s Lugo) to get off their “lazy American” asses. It follows that none of the actors gives “maybe” lazy-ass performances. Shalhoub’s half-Colombian half-Jew will be offensive to both Colombians and Jews (you actually see him in a yarmulke leading a Shabbos meal) but not so offensive that he’s not a howl. I love the guy.
Pain & Gain gives you a rush while at the same time making you queasy about how you’re getting off. Partly you’re supposed to be queasy because of the idiotic amorality of the characters — that’s what passes for dramatic complexity. Partly you’re queasy because Bay and company are active participants if not co-conspirators. Here, the director values — and gets high on — shock. As the film goes from straight-ahead satire to a mixture of Three Stooges slapstick and bloody violence, you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing and know on some level it’s wrong to feel pleasure. But that’s true of many movies, isn’t it? Discomfort is the price we sensitive souls pay. And, you know, no pain, no gain.