As improbable as it might sound, Pain & Gain is Michael Bay's attempt a Coen Brothers picture -- his Fargo or Burn After Reading if you will. Like both of those films (which rank amongst my own personal favorite Coen-made movies), Pain & Gain is a dark comedy about a group of very dumb, very greedy, very selfish and all-around not very nice people who apply their distinct lack of smarts and skills to crime and wind up failing spectacularly. But where the Coens were only kidding about Fargo being based on a true story, Pain & Gain's claims to legitimacy aren't manufactured. The crime dramatized here really did go down in Miami in the mid-'90s and while details have almost certainly been altered to fit Bay's glossy, hedonistic vision, Pain & Gain is, funnily enough, probably more historically accurate than the director's recreation of Pearl Harbor.
Needless to say, it's a lot more fun than that DOA period piece as well, largely because the bromance between stars Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie outclasses the love triangle connecting Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale in every way. Pumped up, greased up and wholly committed to playing the scum of the earth, this trio stands as the finest comedy team so far this year and individually they deliver career-best work as well. As he reminded the world in last summer's mega-hit Ted, Wahlberg is, at heart, a comedian trapped in an action hero's body. That body is even buffer here to suit the actor's role as Daniel Lugo, a Miami-based bodybuilder just barely scraping by as a personal trainer while dreaming of attaining the riches that surround him in that South Florida mecca of wealth and privilege. He believes he's got the brain to achieve his dreams too, even though his last get-rich-quick scheme (duping old people out of their money) landed him in prison for a spell. Since getting sprung, Daniel has fallen under the influence of motivational speaker/infomercial staple/obvious con artist Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), who insists that his disciples be "Doers" and not "Don'ters." To prove himself a Doer, Lugo hatches the harebrained scheme of kidnapping one of the rich a-holes at his fitness club, sandwich shop tycoon Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, marvelously hateable), and forcing him to sign over all his property and assets. To aid him in this plan, he enlists his good friend and steroid-fueled gym rat Adrian (Mackie) and fellow ex-con Paul (Johnson, fall-on-the-floor funny), a born-again Christian whose desire for earthly pleasures trumps his faith in Jesus.
From the moment they leap out of their kidnapping vehicle clad in spandex ninja costumes and manage to miss their target due to having parked by the wrong BMW, it's clear that this bunch of maroons is in over their heads. And even though they manage to fail upwards -- eventually nabbing Kershaw and his fortune and leaving him battered and broke -- they'll inevitably find some new way to screw it all up. But here's the crazy part: nobody around them seems to notice or care. Not the authorities, who don't believe Kershaw's story (or even pretend to like him at all); not his neighbors or employees, who don't miss the jackass in the slightest; and not the kidnappers' various friends and lovers, ranging from Dan's boss (Rob Corddry) to the stripper (Bar Paly) he sometimes bangs and then gifts to Paul as a way to keep him in the fold to the nurse (Rebel Wilson) specializing in male impotence whom Adrian visits and falls for after the 'roids cause his equipment to stop working. Dan and his pals are so absurd, they can hide in plain sight because no one believes them capable of anything nefarious. No one, that is, except for retired private eye, Ed DuBois (Ed Harris), who takes on Kershaw's case just as the guys are planning one more job: defrauding a local porn king (Michael Rispoli).
If the film's stars are its best asset than its director, sadly, turns out to be its worst enemy. For the first half, Bay is completely dialed into this material, his frat boy sense of humor and overblown visual sensibility complimenting the story and setting. 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, delusions of grandeur that are also expressed by Dan, Paul and Adrian in funny, if extraneous voiceover narration; the comedy, meanwhile, stems from the disconnect between the lush visuals and the characters' awful behavior. One of the interesting quirks about Bay as an action director has always been the overt contempt he seems to have for his protagonists. (I have a hard time believing, for example, that he honestly expects audiences to find Shia LaBeouf's Transformers hero Sam Witwicky a likable guy. Likewise, the bad boys at the center of Bad Boys are, at best, big time jerks and, at worst, fascists with badges.) This is the first time he's actively been able to encourage the audience to mock his so-called heroes as well, and he takes great delight in making his leading men look like dysfunctional buffoons, something they're entirely on board with. The opening hour of Pain & Gain is perhaps Bay's most honest and personal film as a director, as much an encapsulation of his particular worldview and aesthetic as something like The Tree of Life is for Terrence Malick.
Unfortunately, much like Lugo, Bay's taste for excess is the thing that eventually trips him up. The down-and-dirty 90-minute version of Pain & Gain might have actually deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as Fargo, which clocks in at a perfectly paced 98 minutes, for the record. But this movie actually runs 130 minutes and boy, does it fizzle out well before the credits roll. What ultimately kills the film isn't cruelty, but rather repetition; at a certain point, Bay exhausts his visual bag of tricks and with little of the aptitude for (or, frankly, interest in) nuanced storytelling and incisive, layered character portraits that distinguish the Coen Brothers' work, he spins his wheels for a bit before reverting to what he knows best: mindless mayhem. The final half-hour of Pain & Gain dials down the dark humor and pumps up the chase sequences, in the process becoming just another routine action movie. It's great to see Bay trying to exercise his filmmaking muscles after the mind-numbing Transformers trilogy, but if he attempts something like Pain & Gain again, he should make sure to have a spotter.
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