Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain” is a true-crime story that would seem like a good opportunity to satirize some people’s version of the American Dream, but doing so would require a certain amount of finesse. The story is fascinating on its own, so Bay’s need to send everything into overdrive all the time ends up getting in the way, as does his apparent refusal to let the audience meet him halfway. He goes at the material with a jackhammer, and while the sheer craziness on display can sometimes be entertaining to watch, the movie ultimately feels uneven, superficial, and overworked.
The time is the early 90s, and Mark Wahlberg plays Sun Gym fitness trainer, Daniel Lugo, the sort of guy who’s just as likely to manipulate as he is to be manipulated. Lugo “believes in fitness,” as he says in the opening of the film, but fitness is really a stand-in for cutthroat opportunism here. He feels like he’s been cheated out of the pleasures in life, and after attending a seminar headed by self-help guru Johnny Wu (played by the reliably absurd Ken Jeong), he’s ready to become a “do-er” instead of a “don’t-er.” Lugo, like many idiots before him, fails to realize that success is a process that includes actual hard work and he starts planning a scheme to defraud one of his more irritating clients, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub).
In order to accomplish this goal, he enlists his dim-witted trainer buddy, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), and ex-con/born-again Christian/cocaine monster, Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Predictably, things don’t go as planned, and even when they do, completely by accident, this hapless trio manages to screw them back up in ways a sensible human being wouldn’t even be able to imagine.
The most interesting thing here is the casting of such likeable movie star-personalities as amoral characters doing despicable things. It takes a while to even realize how sociopathic these guys are (Johnson being a weirdly specific sort of exception), especially when just about everything that happens is played for laughs. Wahlberg is like an alternate version of his Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler character from “Boogie Nights” who never met Jack Horner and went into bodybuilding instead of porn. Lugo essentially has no conscience, whereas Diggler did, but it’s a similar breed of moron with delusions of grandeur. Mackie does what he can with a character that’s mostly comprised of panicking and dick jokes, but Johnson is something completely out of left-field.
Dwayne Johnson has, at this point, broken out as a marquee star. He can lead movies, and he’s done everything from revenge thrillers to family action adventures. His Paul Doyle is something he hasn’t done before (even including his strange turn in Richard Kelly’s more scathing, but much harder to grasp, 2007 satire, “Southland Tales”), switching between desperate maniac and remorseful, child-like hulk. The character, as is the case with most of them in “Pain & Gain,” is a bit of a caricature at times, but Johnson makes him as interesting as he can, proving again that he’s got real talent as an actor. He’s certainly the most fun to watch.
Bay employs a wide-variety of visual schemes, one being lighting that is sometimes so overdone, I couldn’t help but wonder if Wahlberg’s character would have less trouble paying the bills if he didn’t always have twenty different lights on in his apartment. It could be argued that the overly stylish approach to the movie is representative of how the characters see themselves, but I have to think it’s just how Bay likes to shoot movies. Fortunately, however, he makes no attempt to glorify their behavior and consistently paints them as larger-than-life imbeciles. He also fills the background of every shot with beautiful women, even more so than usual, but regrettably, the ones that get actual roles are just portrayed as sex objects. Even Rebel Wilson is a sex object in this movie.
The genre of “stupid people doing increasingly stupid things” (Wahlberg’s seen one of the high points with “Boogie Nights”) has always been a favorite of mine, and the decision to make the movie comedic is inspired given the dark nature of the material, but this is no “Fargo” with bodybuilders. It’s a description I kept hearing, and even used myself, before its release, but the Coen Brothers understand that real humor comes from deep within a character, not simply from the absurdity of a situation. They also know that straight comedy isn’t the way to go in every scene with this kind of content, especially when it gets gruesome, and when it inevitably does in “Pain & Gain,” it’s still handled like The Three Stooges. The audience never really gets the opportunity to properly digest what’s happening. The more slapstick tone of “Burn After Reading” would probably be a more apt comparison, but that’s still a considerably more effective film than “Pain & Gain.” I’m all for a dark comedy, but this sometimes forgets that it’s even dark, which seems nearly impossible given the nature of the story. It never gets uncomfortable, just crazy. I wanted the characters to sit down and have a real conversation and stop hurtling around all the time. That being said, you have to hand it to Bay for really going all out. He doesn’t compromise for anyone here, and although it doesn’t amount to much, the absurdity on display does provide a certain amount of entertainment. It’s just all superficial, which is even more disappointing knowing what an interesting movie this material could have produced. There’s so much unrealized satire here, and it could have really cut deep, but Michael Bay is still the Willy Wonka of directors. I’d rather see one of the Oompa-Loompas get a shot at directing. Who knows, they might not even like candy.