Big, dumb, ridiculously over-the-top fun. When all else fails, filmmaker Michael Bay, perhaps one of the most unfairly maligned directors of the last two decades, can make it rain and bring the entertaining thunder like no one else. If not the inventor of the modern day supernova-esque blockbuster, Bay certainly defined it with some of the biggest, loudest, most larger-than-life spectacles of contemporary cinema. While loathed in many circles for several years by critics like Roger Ebert and others for “ruining movies” with his dumbed-downed, stadium-sized, often banal, Bon Jovi-like anthemic films that came with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Bay’s reputation has improved in recent years with the rise and popularity of vulgar auteurism (a newfound respect or the loud and proud). Revered auteurs like Christopher Nolan have publicly stated that they’ve studied his movies for action cues, and his dynamic visual largesse is indeed unparalleled. The second glance revisionism and appreciation of his oeuvre has been healthy and much-needed. But even by Michael Bay standards, his latest, the smaller, scaled-down American-Dream-for-Dummies comedy, “Pain & Gain” is all too familiar, tired and unimaginative. Perhaps more importantly, the essential “fun” ingredient in the big and dumb formula is missing in this ham-fisted effort.
You know you’re in trouble when a movie begins at the end of the story and has a voice-over to hold your hand through a pretty played-out narrative device (evidently some people missed the moratorium memo on this exhausted trope). But we’re not here for plot, characters, dialogue, sense, clarity or reinventing the wheel, right? And thus, “Pain & Gain,” while quickly spoon-feeding you the movie’s themes up front, then rewinds to the beginning, the salad days before everything went to shit.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a convicted fraudster who’s all about second chances, the American dream and fitness. His second act in life comes through a struggling body-building gym that he transforms into a viable business for his boss (Rob Corddry) with a newfound outlook on life and work ethic. Lugo’s m.o. is work hard and, like the 1:1 correlation of body building, you’ll see results. But the dim bulb doesn’t understand that life doesn’t work like pumping iron and he’s soon sick and tired of being stationary and poor. Along with his co-worker and erectile-dysfunctional roid-freak Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), Lugo schemes up a plan to steal from the rich and give to himself. He targets the self-made Colombian, half-Jewish entrepreneur Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and eventually recruits one more man into the operation: the just-sprung jailbird Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), who’s found god and is doing his best to stay in the Lord’s good graces.
The doltish trio set out to kidnap and force Kershaw to sign over all his finances. As you’d expect, these slow-witted baboons botch the crime and much, much more. As the men live the high life, Kershaw hires a private investigator (Ed Harris) to right his wrong. Based on a true story, the screenplay of the movie sticks to the script to the point that there are zero surprises. These men are idiots with ambition and so their trajectory is easy to follow five moves ahead. They bumble and stumble, bumble and stumble, rinse, wash, repeat. But that’s not the point, right? And yet, “Pain & Gain” is only sporadically entertaining and funny. Many gags just fall flat and or are so unbelievable they become ridiculous.
If there’s a bright spot in the movie, it’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who transforms from ex-con to god-fearing Jesus freak, to maniacal cocaine-hoovering freakshow. These first two versions of the character are one of the film’s few joys, but the final version, while deliciously unhinged for a few moments, quickly blurs into the background of the movie’s overly long, thick-headed, and strained second half. Wahlberg and Mackie are also relatively amusing at first, but their muscle-headed Tony Robbins-like motivation and ambition routine gets old fast; especially when the script provides them absolutely nothing else to do but regurgitate boorish meins and “oh shit, we fucked up!” outbursts of wide-eyed panic.
While marginally funny at first, “Pain & Gain” briskly consigns itself to being content with dumb empty laughs, a few that connect because they’re so wild and outrageous, and many that are just insipid. Ken Jeong and Rebel Wilson co-star, and while the latter is funny, she’s only given a tad of screen time. Shaloub on the other hand is a poor substitute for John Turturro, whose broad minstreling in the “Transformers” movies was always hilarious no matter how much the script betrayed him.
Hampered by the “true story” nature, Bay depicts the capture, a long, drawn out trial, the aftermath in prison and even more monologues that were essentially cut and pasted from the first part of the script. Dude, we get it. Forced to keep this overly long story going, Bay reverts to his catch-all tet offensive moves: supersizing everything. With everything turned up to 11 for at least the entirety of the second half of the picture, nothing stands out. Worse, most of it plays out like a parody of Michael Bay films from a less capable director simply aping Bay’s greatest hits cliches — the forced slow-motion shots to convey something sexy or cool, the walking away from an explosion shot, the sunkissed shot of an airplane soaring overhead, the slow-mo to speed-ramping for would-be comedic effect, the jarring freeze frame, etc. infinitum. Again, and more importantly, little of it is very enjoyable.
Even with Bay cranking it up, all the moves and tricks are completely familiar and uninspired. Bay did it all and much better in the previous two “Bad Boys” films, and they were much more fun to boot. Overstaying its welcome by a few miles, perhaps the biggest crime “Pain & Gain” commits is turning three likable leads, doofuses and all, into spectacular muscle-headed morons that you want to finally see go away if only so the movie will mercilessly end. Two hours and ten minutes long, “Pain & Gain” feels more like two and a half hours (or more) and would have been better served in a bite-sized 90 minute wham, bam, thank you m’am approach instead of its “staying true to every detail of this true story” sprawl that exhausts the audience and buckles under the weight of its not-even-that heavy story.
Set in the early ‘90s, “Pain & Gain” desperately wants to be a ‘90s classic in the vein of “Pulp Fiction” or the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo,” but Bay has clearly overestimated the fairly pedestrian and conventional script from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (“Captain America: The First Avenger“). And so the film superficially resembles these types of comedic, violent crime dramas, yet remains almost completely absent of the wit and sharpness that defined them. The script has myriad issues, but one of the most head scratching is shifting the point of view several times over for no discerning reason. Each character (including the “villain” and third-act detective) receive their own voice-over monologue set to a montage of them performing whatever task it is that defines them. By the time the third or fourth, non-leading character receives his or her monologue, the script essentially seems to say, “well, he had a monologue, so he should get one too, no?” Shears should just be taken to this script and story in almost every scene.
“Pain & Gain” fails at being an entertaining and ridiculously fun Michael Bay movie and curdles into something much more tone deaf and obnoxious. It isn’t necessarily Michael Bay’s worst movie, but it might be his most overworked and least effective. One would have hoped that Bay, taking a brief detour away from the land of Hasbro toy adaptations — of which, it should be said, are at least visually thrilling if far too melodramatic — might re-inspire the filmmaker. But comedy requires a mastery of tone and nuance that Bay doesn’t seem to possess beyond his on and off switch of loud and boisterous. Michael Bay’s crime doesn’t pay themes and his ambition to do something new is stolen by his desire to play things safe and stupid. [D+]