Division Division: 'Pain & Gain'

When there’s no critical consensus on a movie, the film gets sent to Criticwire’s Division Division where we measure the arguments on both sides.

By now, most people agree: Michael Bay, for better or worse, is an auteur. His films have a distinct, excessive visual style, and his humor is consistent across his films (whether or not that’s a good thing is up for debate). He has never been a big hit with critics, with “The Rock” being his only “certified fresh” film to date, but he’s a blockbuster machine and has two films in The Criterion Collection to prove it. But with “Pain & Gain,” which opened last Friday, something funny happened. I don’t just mean that Michael Bay made a movie not about super-robots or supermen, I mean that many critics praised the film as a smart, self-aware satire. Many called it Bay’s best, some called it a great film.

But nothing’s ever that simple with Bay. And indeed, others were not so kind. It’s still up for debate whether audiences “Pain & Gain”‘s embrace of stupidity is smart or completely lacking any degree of insight, and the film has repulsed many critics on moral levels. It stands at a rather shaky C+ on Criticwire, but that C+ includes a few A’s, too.

PRO: It displays a remarkable restraint.

“But if [childish humor] is the required price of a skewed view into the expounded-upon American dream, so be it: a little too much is, as a general rule, better than too little, and merely slight overflow from Bay, of all people, is nigh miraculous.”Nick Newman, The Film Stage

CON: …but it doesn’t pull back on its rampant sexism/racism/homophobia.

“You have your virulent disgust for non-Caucasians and women of all shapes and sizes. Should we even mention the crinkle-faced fear of sex outside the hetero norm? Or the rancid jingoism — all those ‘Morning in America’ shots of the Stars and Stripes — that the filmmaker half-assedly tries to pass off as searching, soul-of-a-nation burlesque?”Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York

PRO: Bay is mocking the self-aggrandizing and problematic attitudes of his protagonists.

“Each of the three represent different aspects that drive men to do so many horrible things. Daniel is money and status, Adrian sex, and Paul religion. Any of these can be positive forces, unless they’re taken on selfishly and carelessly…it could appear as if Bay is glorifying them the way they glorify themselves. Nonsense, given how totally ridiculous he so often makes them look and how thoroughly they manage to screw up nearly every stage of the process.”Scott Nye, Criterion Cast

CON: …but the film gradually falls to the level of its characters.

“‘Pain & Gain’ imagines itself to be funny but it really isn’t. Among other ‘distinctions,’ the movie doesn’t manage to introduce a single sympathetic character. Worse yet, it succumbs to its own longwinded juvenility.”Emanuel Levy, EmanuelLevy.com

PRO: Aesthetically, it’s Bay’s most meaningful statement.

“The director shoots Miami like the ultimate music video and his three leads like rock legends, which they are… in their own minds, anyway. Bay’s larger-than-life images capture the way these guys see themselves…the comedy, meanwhile, stems from the disconnect between the lush visuals and the characters’ awful behavior.”Ethan Alter, Television Without Pity

CON: …until suddenly it isn’t.

“Bay exhausts his visual bag of tricks and with little of the aptitude for nuanced storytelling and incisive, layered character portraits…he spins his wheels for a bit before reverting to what he knows best: mindless mayhem.”Ethan Alter, Television Without Pity

PRO: Forget all this moralizing, it’s a great popcorn flick!

“This is sleazy, abrasive entertainment, and that’s a compliment without backhand.”Mark Dujsik, Mark Reviews Movies

CON: …but one of Bay’s least original.

“‘Pain & Gain’ is all too familiar, tired and unimaginative…Bay did it all and much better in the previous two ‘Bad Boys’ films, and they were much more fun to boot.”Rodrigo Perez, The Playlist

PRO: It’s a riot — and it knows it!

“Anchored by character voiceovers that give the film a confessionary feel and enlivened by a refined version of Bay’s music video style, Pain & Gain makes it easy to get caught up in its well-orchestrated ridiculousness…, the outrageousness of the bodybuilders keeps the film from losing its pitch black comic edge.  Too dense to let a little murder dampen their mood, these antiheroes continue in their wacky ways, remaining delusional to the last drop.”Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

CON: …but it’s pure imitation.

“This is what becomes of art, Bay inadvertently says. The techniques that opened up the floodgates for expression are regurgitated by hacks who excrete a hand-held dayglo paste of muscles and tits shovelled into steaming buckets, ready for the multiplex.” — Pat Padua, DCist

With a lot of notable movies playing in the New York City area right now, so I haven’t had the chance to see “Pain & Gain” just yet. But while “Mud” may be getting the best reviews and “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty” is reportedly close to avant-garde, it’s “Pain & Gain” that everyone is talking about. We owe it to ourselves to check out “Pain & Gain.” Good or bad, it certainly sounds like quite a spectacle.

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