Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Something Big: Pain & Gain

Anthony Mackie, Mark Wahlberg, and Dwayne Johnson star in Michael Bay's Pain & Gain

The true-crime black comedy Pain & Gain is set in Miami in the mid-‘90s and stars Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo, an egotistical musclehead who works in a gym as a personal trainer. Lugo, whose most ambitious attempt at making his dreams come true has involved a fraud scheme he ran on senior citizens that landed him in prison, can’t understand why he’s living in a tiny apartment, bouncing checks, and getting turned down for dates by his clients when other people less cool than himself are raking it in, and he bristles with the resentment of someone whose thinks the system must be rigged against him. His master plan for getting ahead is to team up with a couple of other muscleheads Adrian (Anthony Mackie), who needs money for medical treatment to correct the damage that his steroid use has done to his sexual virility, and Paul (Dwayne Johnson), a homeless ex-con with a cocaine addictionand kidnap one of his rich clients, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and torture him into signing over all his funds and assets. Things spiral downward from there. The movie opens with Lugo, on foot, running from the cops who are coming to arrest him, and the words “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” flash on the screen. At one point much later, after the main action has begun to unfold in flashback, there’s a scene in which someone who has been tasked with making the bodies of a couple of murder victims unidentifiable cuts off the corpses’ hands and barbecues them on an outdoor grill, and the words ‘THIS IS STILL A TRUE STORY” appear. There are a few different ways that a filmmaker could go with this material. The director, Michael Bay, goes with a tone of thrilled, grossed-out amazement at how stupid his characters are and how depraved their behavior is. The film speaks in a voice that has only one reaction to anything: “Can you believe this shit!?

Bar Paly and Mark Wahlberg in Pain & Gain
If there was ever a role that might have benefitted from the services of Mark Wahlberg, more than anyone else’s, it’s Daniel Lugo. Wahlberg is a past master at imbuing simple, inarticulate characters with physical grace and a suggestion of something sensitive and heartfelt. His torso is so grotesquely pumped-up here that physical grace is almost out of the question, but he ought to be able to make Lugo’s desperation vivid in a way that dares the viewer not to feel some connection to this creep. The role might have offered him the chance to turn some of his past roles, such as the title character (or one of the title characters) in The Fighter, inside out, and explore the dark underbelly of the hero with the odds stacked against him who just goes for it. But Bay has no interest in what he and anyone in the audience might have in common with Lugo and his fellow thugs, and couldn’t care less about what makes them tick. As he tells the story, it’s not complicated: they’re idiotswhat else is there to say?

He wipes out both Wahlberg and the ferociously gifted Anthony Mackie, freezing the frame when they have funny-looking expressions on their faces and turning them into cartoons. Although Victor Kershaw is a blameless victim in this story, the character is meant to be so charmless and abrasive that the cops won’t help him because they don’t want to believe his wild stories about the killer bodybuilders coming after him, and Bay gives him the same treatment: when Kershaw hit with a Taser in the side of his head, there’s a long, slow-motion close-up of foamy spittle flying from his mouth. A few minutes earlier, there’s another slow-motion image of Kershaw getting out of a car in front of a sandwich shop he owns and, cigar in hand, smiling as he looks up at a jet airliner flying overhead. A typical Bay touch, it establishes, in as cheap and vulgar a way as possible, the cheapness and vulgarity of Kershaw’s feeling that his money makes him powerful and beyond reach. Throughout Pain & Gain, Bay uses the flashy, tinselly technique he’s honed on such films as Armageddon (still the most ironic/inexplicable selection in the history of the Criterion Collection), Pearl Harbor, and the Bad Boys and Transformers pictures to make the point that the characters are beneath contempt because they’re so dumb, shallow, and pointlessly money-driven. There hasn’t been anything quite like this since Donald Trump shared his opinion that Barack Obama’s term as editor of the Harvard Law Review must have been some kind of Affirmative Action thing, because as near as he can tell, Obama isn’t very bright.

Sometimes, when a talented filmmaker with his own distinctive point of view does a piece of failed genre hackwork, the results can tell you something about what makes him specialnot for the things he does right, but for the ways in which his work is hopeless when he isn’t expressing himself on material that means something to him. Similarly, you can sometimes get a better handle on what really defines a skillful, commercially successful, but consistently terrible director when he tries to stretch himself a little. When the late Tony Scott tried to pick up a little indie cred by directing the Quentin Tarantino-Roger Avary screenplay True Romance, he treated some of the pop-culture obsessions (such as the hero’s visitations from Elvis) that went to the heart of the work as random bits of weirdness meant to freshen up the sex and violence, and he lingered on the brutality (such as a scene in which James Gandolfini almost beats Patricia Arquette to death) in a way that felt repulsive.

Dwayne Johnson, Tony Shalhoub, and Mark Wahlberg
Bay’s reputation is even worse than Scott’sno New York Times critic like Manohla Dargis has ever jumped up on the bar and made a wild-eyed declaration as Dargis did in her review of the Richard (Southland Tales) Kelly-scripted Dominothat his garbage is “generally entertaining as hell” and that she’d much rather “watch the unrepentantly lowbrow Top Gun for the seventh or eighth time” than something that doesn’t look like a Pepsi commercial from Hell. By contrast, Bay gets no respect at all, even though his style looks just like Scott’s with the pretentiousness scraped off. Maybe the only explanation for this is that Bay comes across as a striver, a true believer in pure cornball Americana with a post-MTV visual style , while Scott, like his brother Ridley, made butt-ugly, deeply insulting movies with a suggestion of something saturnine and self-hating underneath. Maybe people who have a taste for garish-looking horseshit feel better if they get it from a director who acts as if he could do better, if he weren’t too hip to risk being “middlebrow.”

I’ve actually always had a soft spot for Bay, whenever I wasn’t watching one of his movies. At the very least, I figured, he has a sense of humor about himself, even if it’s easier to detect in his own work as a pitchman than in anything he’s ever hoisted onto the big screen. Pain & Gain is a massive blow to whatever reputation he may have as a funny guy, let alone someone capable of a light touch. It’s a measure of how unrelieved this movie is that, of the four actors who dominate the first half, Dwayne Johnson comes off better than Wahlberg, Mackie, and Shalhoub, just because he’s allowed to show traces of sweetness and a desire for friendship and self-improvement, even if his belief that he’s basically a good person is delusional. (The only other character who isn’t wholly contemptible is the semi-retired private eye who cracks the case open; Ed Harris gives a restrained, sturdy performance in the hoary role.)

Pain & Gain is a nightmare to sit through, in the same way that the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading was, and for the same reason: it’s wearying to watch a movie that consists of nothing but venal morons behaving more and more stupidly, until they’ve turned their lives to ash. In their prouder moments, the Coens have shown that they can make more inventive, entertaining use of their gimmicky misanthropy. Before Pain & Gain was released, I heard from some people who weren’t normally Michael Bay fans that they were looking forward to it: they figured that it was a good story, and that Bay was a competent enough director that he’d be able to do it justice, just as the kind of people whose idea of entertainment was a movie about giant toy robots slugging it out clearly felt that he did that kind of material justice. But Pain & Gain demonstrates that people best known for movies about giant toy robots slugging it out might be better off leaving the movies about human beings to others. Bay and his material are well-matched, in the worst way. His style is the visual equivalent of steroid abuse.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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