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This is a ridiculous, misanthropic film. 

Michael Bay is a well-known fan of the Coen brothers. He frequently casts Coen regulars (John Turturro and Frances McDormand for example) and sometimes seems to flirt with some of their human-hating dark humor from time to time. Even in kids’ movies like Transformers. In Pain & Gain, Bay returns to the world of R rated high saturation ridiculousness that he left behind for ten years to do progressively worse giant robot movies. This is the world where Bay belongs, however. This means that Pain & Gain is here to remind us what the guy can do with obnoxious, somehow nuanced, vulgarity when he feels like it.

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One of the things I like about Bay is how unafraid he is to mock his own trademarks. 

Pain & Gain isn’t some kind of masterpiece, but it is definitely the most 90’s movie of 2013. That has to count for something, right?

It’s a very funny, very entertaining film with a bevy of great performances. It’s basically a cinematic list of great lines, scenes, and small beats that keeps piling on itself and rarely lets up. To get a bit more sophisticated for a moment, it is also a great companion piece to Spring Breakers. This movie is also showing us a great big mirror held up to a dimension of the American psyche with much wit but little judgment. Like Spring Breakers, I think Pain & Gain has a very high potential to be misunderstood and championed by a crop of idiots for whom this movie has a condescending affection. They will want to be just like Daniel Lugo and fail to realize that not only is Lugo a sociopathic monster, this movie isn’t shy about it.

It is also worth mentioning that I read the articles this film was based on and it is fairly faithful from what I can remember. I read the pieces back when this movie was first announced. Pain & Gain might be the most entertainingly bizarre “true story” movie ever made.

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This movie is sort of a present for people who like Mark Wahlberg.

Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a half-smart gym trainer who aspires to be a lot more. He’s the classic scumbag who is just smart enough to bamboozle dumber people but not quite smart enough to realize that he is being bamboozled just as often. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t realize that self-help gurus often make money on the saps who listen to them, not on some secret they discovered beforehand. Ken Jeong has an extended cameo as Johnny Wu, exactly the sort of guy Lugo listens to and wishes he could be. That the audience is (or should be) clued into what Wu is all about divorces them from Lugo’s obliviousness and shows him for the fool he is. I just hope that’s what most people get from this because there is no sense that Lugo, in real life or as depicted, is at all heroic. Entertaining? Yes. You want to see his adventures and antics precisely because he’s entertaining and his interactions with Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) are so consistently hilarious.

This is something Wahlberg brings to the table alongside the film’s approach to the story. Pain & Gain is a crazy story and a lot is made of how unbelievable it all is. Pete Collins’ articles could have been approached in a way more straightforward way. It’s to Bay and his writers’ (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) credit that they decided instead to focus on just that unbelievability and commit to it utterly. This makes scenes that probably didn’t happen (Lugo and the kids) play out in a way that feels consistent to the characterization and tone while also being as bewildering and entertaining as pretty much anything else that happens.

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Kershaw is a great Bayhem character.

As Lugo uses his low-grade cunning to help Sun Gym up its profile, to the delight of owner John Mese (Rob Corddry), he starts training Vic Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Kershaw is a self-made man in exactly the kind of way that Johnny Wu probably isn’t. Rather than “generously” sharing his secrets, Kershaw has a chip on his shoulder as deep as the Marianas and wastes no opportunity to be a staggering prick about everything. Lugo is just another loser to him and the film suggests that its Lugo’s deep-rooted envy combined with Kershaw’s arrogance that sets his whole whacky scheme off. Lugo decides to stage a kidnapping, have Kershaw sign over his assets, and then get away with it all by preserving his anonymity. To get this done, he recruits his best friend Adrian (a moronic juicer with erectile dysfunction) and the recently freed Paul Doyle (a big, lovable born-again with impulse control issues). Lugo is a gifted liar and uses every inch of that gift to string his friends, and everyone else, along. They hold Kershaw for weeks. He refuses to break and even forms a twisted friendship with Paul. When he finally does break, they ineffectually attempt to kill him and make it look like an accident. He survives, though, which is actually deepens the menace in the movie instead of alleviating it.

The cops don’t take Kershaw seriously so he reaches out to a private investigator, Ed Dubois (Ed Harris) who is retired and feels like a bit of a cliche. He’s the most cinematic character in the movie, kind of, the quintessential retired cop/retired detective who takes on one last case on instinct, though at first he has the same incredulous reaction to Kershaw’s story as the police did. One of the points the movie returns to is that the cops really dropped the ball and take a lot of responsibility for the further misdeeds of Lugo and his “gang”.

As much as Lugo sucks at being a criminal (and boy does he), he was really good at working for Sun Gym. In another life, Lugo could have become a fitness guru not dissimilar from Johnny Wu (who is more a “boats and bitches” guru apparently) and really had the empire he so desperately wants. The fun of the movie, though, is in just how badly Lugo and friends fuck things up. The film is structured as a series of progressively more bizarre and intensely stupid misadventures. Every time it threatens to turn into something more pedestrian, Paul does some coke or robs an armored car and the movie is back off anything resembling rails. This is a good thing.

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Everybody in the movie is good but The Rock fucking owns.

Pain & Gain is a pretty stylish movie but is light on gimmicks or Bay’s characteristic touches. One of the gimmicks that works surprisingly well is the voiceover. In conventional wisdom, voiceover is a crutch used by lesser screenwriters who can’t get the message across with staging. In this movie, Bay and the writers show how little they care about that conventional wisdom and give every major character their own voiceover. Sometimes this is broken up and you don’t hear any for a few scenes, other times the voiceover swings from character to character in the same scene. It’s one of the ways we get introduction to these people, and it’s actually an excellent delivery system for comedy. I usually don’t mind well-done voiceover in a movie and here it’s so much a part of the joke that it feels irreplaceable. It’s actually kind of stunning how well it’s woven between the characters, it’s almost like the movie is doing third-person omniscient. I think the last movie I remember that did something similar (besides Detention but, well, y’know) was Election.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Michael Bay and I’m glad he’s got movies like Pain & Gain still in him. This is a movie that is preoccupied with an exaggerated definition of not only the “American Dream” (which is often referred to) but in a warped definition of masculinity. In Lugo’s world, a real man has the sculpted body of a God first and everything else should follow from that. It’s a sort of entitlement that might seem a bit foreign to younger people, but it does make you understand Lugo’s mentality and just how twisted he really is (if you’re paying enough attention anyway). Though this movie enjoys its idiotic, violent criminals it doesn’t try to glorify them. They glorify themselves and the movie is happy to stand back and watch it happen. This is very familiar after seeing Spring Breakers but I imagine it’s hard for audiences to get a good handle on. I mean, we are far more used to anti-hero stories (or at least misinterpreting satire as heroism, see Scarface) that would have made Lugo and friends a tragic story of things simply getting out of hand. They definitely do get out of hand, but it isn’t because of cosmic unfairness or oppression but because of stupidity, shortcuts, and the entitlement of the American Dream.

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Broad irony is something Bay occasionally does very well, if never subtly.

Like I keep saying, a lot of people are going to miss the irony of Pain & Gain even if they grasp that this is not a movie where we’re supposed to root for Lugo and his buddies (at least too much). It’s sort of hard not to root for Paul and as he is somehow the funniest and also least culpable of the three, the movie is okay with this and it gives you permission to be as well. His ending is downright pleasing, in some ways, because while movie Paul Doyle might be different from real-life Paul Doyle, you get a sense that this is basically a man who means well but is too gullible, stupid, and caught up in his addictions to have the fortitude to withstand a man like Daniel Lugo. Lugo and Adrian are simply numbskulls who overreach and deserve exactly what happens to them. Lugo started out as a wannabe white collar hustler, which we can more or less get behind as long as he learns a lesson, but this film makes sure you understand that this guy is like a serial killer: fantasy and small potatoes are not going to be enough forever.

Wahlberg has our attention if not our sympathy, then, and while Pain & Gain is way past hard lines of good guys and bad guys (far more like a Coens film this way), there is a sense to which Lugo’s path is carefully structured so that things go really bad around the third act and the dawning realization that there’s no redemption for him is a late one. It’s a delicate balancing act and I appreciate this approach to the story on pure entertainment grounds. You have to get people to like Lugo (at least) enough to follow him through a movie where he essentially does bad things to people because of envy, greed, and self-entitled delusion. You have to kind of hope he’ll make a turn-around or someone more morally reprehensible than he is will turn up. That character never appears because Lugo is the only real monster in the movie. Adrian is his dupe, Paul is a stooge, and Kershaw is an Ari Gold-level asshole.

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Rebel Wilson fits perfectly well in a Bay movie somehow.

Pain & Gain is the kind of movie where you and your friends quote or refer to scenes for days after seeing it. Dwayne Johnson’s cokehead scenes are flat-out worth the movie on their own. He steals the movie but also shows more of his acting muscle (sorry I had to) than the other kind. He always seems just on the verge of breaking out of the “omg he large” mold of action/comedy that he’s done so far. Roles like this and his small one in Be Cool (which started a lot of the buzz he had for a while as a REAL LIVE ACTOR) should open more doors for him if he chooses to go through them. I for one would love to see that. This is a movie where, if it had more Coen DNA, you’d feel the same sort of detached bemusement for Paul Doyle as you did for Brad Pitt’s character in Burn After Reading (they are similar in some ways after all). Instead, Johnson completely wins you over and it’s a special sort of magic that this doesn’t undermine the movie’s ironic affection for the characters.

Bay will never be a classy sort of director, and he shouldn’t be. He’s a step above your standard schlock director and is willing to go places and show you things that you’d never thought you’d see let alone enjoy on some twisted level. He’s a reveler in the vulgar, saturated dimensions of the culture that produced him. He’s an interesting motherfucker, in other words, and he makes very interesting movies, too, even when they suck.

Luckily Pain & Gain doesn’t suck.

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