I realize I’m painting with a broad brush here, but generally people don’t seek wisdom in a place like Gold’s Gym. Even less so in a Michael Bay movie. And yet here is Pain & Gain, a bang-em-up Bay picture about felonious bodybuilders that speaks incisively and hilariously to the graveyard of dreams that is post-recession America.
Based on a true story – the movie cheekily pauses to remind us of this near the end, when things have reached a new level of absurdity – Pain & Gain centers on Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a Miami gym trainer who thinks of himself as a ripped Horatio Alger hero. Daniel describes America as the “most buff, pumped-up country on the planet” and he sees it as a land of opportunity for an ambitious, hard-working guy such as himself. It isn’t long before he has tripled the number of members at the gym and earned a promotion, but that still isn’t enough to support the lifestyle he desires. And so he concocts a scheme to kidnap one of his rich clients, deli magnate Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), and extort his fortune. For this he recruits a dim-witted fellow lifter named Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and an ex-con named Paul (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) who found Jesus in jail yet is fairly easily talked into riding shotgun.
It turns out that for all his bravado about working hard, Daniel takes shortcuts (before coming to the gym, he was convicted for his involvement in a finance scam). This kidnapping plot is his biggest shortcut – and ironically involves a lot of work – yet it’s still something decidedly different than the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps effort of American myth. It’s the easy way to the “top.”
This is the underlying theme to Pain & Gain, which was written by the team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, previously known for their work on the Chronicles of Narnia franchise, of all things. Each of the main characters has been duped into believing that the American dream is easily attainable – if you’re willing to cheat here or there. Adrian is an Adonis, but steroids have a lot to do with that. Paul buys into religion as the quickest path to personal peace, but then he’s hit on by his priest (in one of the movie’s handful of homophobic touches). Even Sorina (Bar Paly), the stripper who plays a tangential part in the scheme, has come to the United States from Bucharest mainly because she saw Pretty Woman. Success in America is as simple as going shopping with Richard Gere. As it proceeds and Daniel’s perfect plan begins to ridiculously unravel, Pain & Gain deflates these myths one by one.
Pain & Gain speaks incisively and hilariously to the graveyard of dreams that is post-recession America.
What does Bay bring to all of this? Before he started banging robots around for a living with the Transformers pictures, Bay specialized in creating the sort of empty Hollywood dreams to which a guy like Daniel Lugo aspired. Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon – these were macho action fantasies that pushed cheap sex, fast cars and big explosions to eager, indiscriminating audiences. Does the fact that Pain & Gain exposes the shallowness of these things mean Bay has had a change of heart? I suppose that’s possible, but it really doesn’t matter. The movie doesn’t need his heart, just his huckster touch. He can sell the hell out of a hedonistic vision to the point of self-parody, thereby capturing the utter vacuousness at its center. Aside from The Island, I’ve detested Bay’s films, but Pain & Gain puts his particular skill set to such ironic purpose that I can’t help but wonder if this movie is the reason he was put on this earth.
That’s something of a back-handed compliment, so let me also give Bay some straightforward praise: Pain & Gain is very funny, and much of the laughs come from a camera zoom or a slow-motion riff at just the right moment. The movie opens with a shot of Daniel doing some insane sort of sit-up while hanging from a bar on the side of a building. As he urges himself on – “I’m hot! I’m big!” – Bay cuts to a camera that’s strapped to his chest so that we follow Daniel’s face as he swings himself up and down. Bay doesn’t just watch these fitness fanatics; he comically puts us inside the burn.
Of course that moment also works because of Wahlberg, who I’m starting to realize should be thought of as a comedian first (see The Other Guys and Ted for evidence). Johnson and Mackie have nice moments, but they hit their punch lines hard. Wahlberg is effortless. Daniel is a fast-talking con man who’s ultimately trying to pull one over on himself. It’s hilarious to watch Daniel whip himself up into a frenzy of self-confident hysteria or bizarrely bask in the spoils of his success. After they get their hands on Kershaw’s money, Adrian and Paul celebrate with women. Daniel nearly humps Kershaw’s speedboat, which he now owns.
This isn’t to say Wahlberg gives a strictly comedic performance. He brings a real darkness to Daniel as well, one that rears its ugly head when the kidnapping plot doesn’t quite go as planned. It’s very easy for Daniel to segue into murder because, after all, the victims are standing in the way of the dream he deserves. Early on, in a bitter speech of justification to Shalhoub’s kidnapping victim, Daniel reveals a perversely vindictive sense of righteousness, one that could also be felt in certain elements of the Occupy movement. “I don’t just want everything you have,” he tells Kershaw. “I want you not to have it.”
I know, I know. Why am I referencing the Occupy movement when writing about a Michael Bay movie? You may not believe it until you see it, but Pain & Gain absolutely hums with contemporary relevance. Like Daniel and his gang, many Americans in the pre-recession era were sold the line that their dreams were just a shortcut away. All it took was one great dot-com idea to become a billionaire. All we had to do to get that McMansion was sign on the dotted line. A quick way to win the war on terror? Take out Saddam. But the bills have come due – Iraq was $1.7 trillion, to say nothing of the human cost – and now we’re being forced to pay. The gain is gone. The pain is here.