THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"PAIN & GAIN"
Pain & Gain is yet another example of a great trailer for a lousy movie. I don't know why, but that trailer has literally been attached to almost every single film I've seen for the last three or four months. Each time it unspooled, I found myself anticipating the chance to watch the movie in its entirety. It looked like a lot of fun. I now know that the trailer was able to capture only the things about Pain & Gain that work, and not the actual experience of sitting through the thing, which is far less pleasing than I'd expected.
The introduction goes out of its way to tell you that this is a true story, and that's smart, because it's one of those cases where truth is stranger than fiction. Mark Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, a Miami personal trainer who dreams of escaping the gym and living the extravagant lifestyle of his clients. People like Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a sandwich shop magnate with enough wealth to make a rich man envious. Lugo comes up with a plan to kidnap Kershaw and extort him for money. He enlists the help of two fellow bodybuilders: his co-worker Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), who's become impotent from too much steroid use, and the cocaine-addicted, born-again, recent parolee Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson). Their plan has a number of hiccups, but they manage (more or less) to pull it off. Kershaw vows revenge, hiring private detective Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) to look into the situation. As the screws tighten, Lugo and his pals start to lose focus, meaning they have to commit increasingly abhorrent crimes to cover up their initial deed.
Pain & Gain was directed by Michael Bay (Transformers), who is a half inspired/half terrible choice for the material. He is an inspired choice in that he gives the movie a pumped-up pace and slick visual style. Both of those things are well-suited to the world of drugs, gyms, and nightlife in which the story is set. He is a terrible choice in that he doesn't really understand comedy. Pain & Gain goes for a very dark, borderline-disturbing sense of humor. (Think of the scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent Vega accidentally shoots Marvin in the car. That sort of thing.) Bay's mistake, though, is that he approaches comedy in the same way he approaches action – 100% head-on, all the time. Comedy, especially of the edgy variety, requires moderation of tone to be fully effective. The punchlines or shock moments should be preceded by something mundane or calm, so that their sudden appearance catches us off guard. Bay stages everything at full-force from beginning to end, so that every potentially funny moment hits with the bombastic force of an Autobot smashing into a Decepticon. He also goes out of his way to over-stage certain jokes, not realizing that presenting them with more subtlety would have made them better. For example, a joke about a guy with diarrhea leads to a shot of a feces-covered bathroom. Watching Pain & Gain is like having a stand-up comedian scream his entire act right into your year. After a while, it just becomes obnoxious and oppressive.
It's entirely possible to make a funny movie about people who do very bad things. Fargo comes to mind. The key to doing it – aside from the aforementioned moderation of tone – is to have someone the audience can care about to offset the ruthless behavior. Although Ed DuBois is a good guy, he's under-developed and doesn't seem to have any particular moral perspective on the case. He's no Marge Gunderson. This is perhaps the biggest detriment to Pain & Gain. Lugo, Doyle, and Doorbal are all horrible people who commit atrocious crimes. And they're the heroes! The film tries to build suspense as they start screwing up and get closer to being apprehended, but it's a bit of a problem that we want to see them get caught. The longer things go on, and the more vile things they do, the more eager I was for the movie to end. It creates an uncomfortable vibe when we're asked to laugh at these men for acting like idiots as they bring about such death and destruction. To root for them is unsettling; to root against them is futile, because the film revels in their bad behavior. Hey, look! They're mutilating a corpse! Isn't that a knee-slapper?
Aside from Bay's visual style, the movie's only real asset is the cast. Mark Wahlberg is very good as dim-bulb Lugo, a guy who thinks desire is sufficient to become successful, thereby vastly underestimating the importance of intelligence. Wahlberg is a terrific dramatic actor, but I absolutely love him in comedy. He always plays it for reality, which is the best way to go. Dwayne Johnson is good, too. If Pain & Gain is remembered for anything, it'll be his wild performance as a guy whose love for cocaine is almost as intense as his love for Jesus. Supporting players like Shalhoub, Rob Corddry (as Lugo's employer) and Rebel Wilson (as Doorbal's love interest) are solid, too.
I'd really love to see all these folks in a better movie, one that knows when to be funny and when to pull back. One that's unencumbered by incessant voiceover narration from multiple characters. One that doesn't inadvertently celebrate criminal behavior by trying so hard to stage it humorously. Pain & Gain is not that movie.
( out of four)
Pain & Gain is rated R for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 9 minutes.
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