Thursday, May 9, 2013

PAIN & GAIN Is Whacked-Out Michael Bay at His Most Excessive

PAIN & GAIN Review:

- After the last couple of Transformers movies, I'll be honest ... my desire to see any new film by Michael Bay was at an all-time low. There was a time when I considered Michael Bay to be a promising action director who had the ability to deliver big, epic, over-the-top, high-concept roller-coaster-rides with aplomb. I'll always hold a special place for the cheesy awesomeness that is THE ROCK (the movie, not Dwayne Johnson). But dozens of crappy movies later ... I'd about had it. Now, Pain & Gain is at least an attempt by Bay to do something a little different. It's a smaller-scale story that still has its share of action. It's got some dark humor, and a subversive streak of social satire lurking somewhere in there. And Bay approaches the story with an eye towards mixing things up stylistically. He throws in little fourth-wall-breaking moments. He isn't afraid to get sort of weird in his creative choices. And hey, he's got a dream cast of talented actors, adept at both playing the badass but also at being self-deprecatingly funny. There are reasons to like Pain & Gain. It's worth watching for those reasons. But there is also a realization here: Michael Bay is now incapable of cranking it down a notch, even when that's exactly what he should be doing.

What do I mean? I mean that, like I said, this is a small-scale story. But Bay just plain *attacks* it. The colors are hypersaturated. The camera angles are extreme. There's slo-mo, speed-up, and yes, numerous "vintage Michael Bay" shots of swirling helicopters, groups of guys cocking their guns in slo-mo sync-up, dudes in silhouette with red-sky backdrops as the camera circles around them ... And, oh yeah, Bay doesn't stay with any given shot for more than three seconds - the rapid-fire cuts come at you as if the movie were edited while under the influence of some seriously potent drugs. One can only imagine that the movie's script includes the words "SMASH CUT" on numerous occasions. But ... why is this the case? Why, for his smallest movie in years, did Bay feel the need to dial up his Bay-ness to eleven? I have no idea. At times, the overall absurdity of the movie's look and directorial style does add to its comedy. But mostly, you just wish that it had been handled by someone who knew how to make a point without also trying to make you hurl.

The movie's extreme visual style is a bit of an eye sore, no question. A few directors, like the late great Tony Scott, were able to pull this sort of thing off in a way where extreme, amped-up stylization contributed to a movie's atmospherics and tonality in a positive way. But that doesn't really happen here. There's no apparent artistic rhyme or reason to most of the creative choices. What's worse though - the movie ends up being all surface, no substance. It's frustrating, because the movie seems to hint at having some thoughts on things like The American Dream. It seems to have some ambition to satirize American culture and physical fitness culture. It appears to have one or two things on its mind. But those things are never explored in any meaningful way. Other filmmakers might have crafted a parable with some thematic resonance. Bay puts in some surface-level "artsy" touches, but for the most part films this as if it's Transformers 4.

The story of Pain & Gain, based on a true story, is interesting. It takes place in the mid 90's, and tells the tale of a group of jacked-up bodybuilders who are as frustrated with their lot in life as they are pleased with their puffed-up pecs. Mark Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, a bodybuilder and trainer who, despite his relative success, wants more. When he begins training a middle-aged millionaire named Victor Kershaw (a very good Tony Shaloub), Lugo becomes increasingly envious of his client's wealth and success. Determined to make a big move to up his station in life, Lugo recruits fellow muscled-up malcontents Paul Doyle (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) to kidnap Kershaw and force him to sign over all of his assets to them.

The movie unfolds as a comedy of errors, with Lugo and his bumbling crew of novice criminals screwing things up and self-sabotaging at every turn. Honestly, I give a huge amount of credit to the cast here - they are all excellent, and sell every line, every gag, every bit of over-the-top absurdity to the nth degree. Wahlberg in particular is in top form - bringing the same sort of earnestness-meets-naivete that he displayed in Ted to the role of Lugo. Wahlberg is consistently entertaining throughout, from his misguided adherence to a con-job self help guru (Ken Jeong) to his hilarious interactions with the kids who live in his neighborhood (he talks to them about scoring with the ladies as if they were his peers and not wide-eyed ten year olds). The Rock and Mackie are also both quite good. The Rock, in particular - while his character is written completely inconsistently, it's nice to see him finally play a character that gives him a chance to be a little more big and broad, and a little more like his in-ring "Rock" persona. Shaloub is fantastic in the role - slimy and sleazy, yet oddly sympathetic, in his role as self-made millionaire Kershaw. And I'll also mention the great Ed Harris, who shows up late as a private investigator working for Kershaw. One thing I'll say about Michael Bay: he always manages to get super badass performances out of Harris (though I guess he is always pretty badass, so maybe it's not all that impressive). In any case, Harris is quite good, and brings some real gravitas to the film - conveying things in his facial expressions that add a nuance and a deeper meaning to the film that I'm guessing may not have been in the script. Oh - Rebel Wilson gets in some funny moments as Anthony Mackie's doting wife.

On that note, the jumpy, manic script fits Michael Bay's style, but ultimately does its characters a disservice by giving them a bare minimum of understandable motivation or personality. I mentioned The Rock's character earlier - despite Dwayne Johnson doing his best and having some funny moments, the character is a mess. He's a born-again ex-con cokehead who seems to be completely all over the map. His character seems to behave completely sporadically and randomly according to the whims of the script. Mackie's character is extremely undercooked. And Wahlberg - well, the whole movie centers around his quest for the American Dream, for self-made perfection. But it all feels totally hollow. Anything that the movie seems to want to say about these characters gets lost in all of its sound and fury. There's nothing to take away from it all, except some very vague concepts about what happens when a couple of overly ambitious guys get in way over their heads. The lack of self-examination or awareness makes the movie feel strangely immoral. As in, the three main characters go from well-meaning dumbasses to pretty horrible, violent, murderous people over the course of the movie. But the movie never really comments on this or addresses it. I guess the blase attitude towards the characters' immorality is supposed to be part of the joke? I don't know. Because Michael Bay is incapable of filming violence in a way that *isn't* supposed to look badass, it's hard to tell what he's going for at any given moment in the film.

Pain & Gain can be a fun film. It's got a great cast that helps to elevate the movie's humor. And so there are some genuinely funny and entertaining moments. And as pure car-crash style exploitation entertainment, there's definitely more than enough energy and perpetual motion in the film to keep your attention. But again, it's all pretty hollow. Frustrating, given how a story like this seems to demand some sort of thematic justification for being told in movie form. What does this real-life story tell us about America? What is its worth other than as an eye-grabbing tabloid headline? And that, essentially, is what this movie is: tabloid sleaze told with tabloid-style excess - filtered through the lens of Michael Bay.

My Grade: C+

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