Pain and Gain
Michael Bay has bad taste. But for the first time in a decade, that's a good thing. Pain & Gain, his latest, doesn't just wallow in depravity. It jumps up and down in it; it showers in it; it celebrates it. The man has spent ten years smuggling his crass, off-brand "humor" into the "Transformers" movies via humping dogs, racially stereotyped robots, and mechanical testicles. But "Pain" unshackles him. It's his first out-and-out comedy, his first film not grounded directly in the trappings of the action genre, and his first that doesn't feel like it was scripted by a marketing executive's computer. "Pain" is his knowing rebuke to his critics; self-aware but also his crassest effort yet. It's ugly, but it's honest.
Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson star as Daniel Lugo, Adrian Doorbal and Paul Doyle; all three puffed to the nines. They look like overinflated balloons, like they're about to pop. These go-nowhere musclemen - Lugo and Doyle are ex-cons - make pocket money as personal trainers, but tire of their place in life quickly (Ken Jeong's cameo as a infomercial-maven-cum-inspirational-speaker sets them down their path.) As it so often goes, criminal activity is not far off: they decide to kidnap one of their clients, Victor Kershaw (Tony Schaloub is the mark, targeted for his frumpy otherness in either an example or a send-up of Bay's bullying tendencies.)
It is, to quote Walhberg's blissfully meatheaded voiceover, "a set-up of awesome potential." (As always, his unrelenting earnestness - along with Johnson's erstwhile commitment to reading every silly line with a straight face - brings the film to heights of absurdity other actors' would've failed to scratch at.) The team figures they'll just force Kershaw to sign off all his belongings, and then they'll dump his body somewhere, and then they'll get away with it. They do.
Well, almost: Kershaw survives. Unfortunately for him, his Columbian heritage makes his story a fair bit suspect to the whitebread Miami cops assigned to the case. (The film's 1995 setting makes that jagged pill slightly easier to swallow.) But fortunately for him, he tracks down an investigator - an even wearier than usual Ed Harris - to go to work on the trio independently. And that's when things start to get really far fetched. But remember when I said that this film was ugly, but honest? Unfortunately, it's a true story.
Bay uses that meta-textual context -- in fact, he shoves the 'true story' phrase in your face; as if it were a catch-all justification for every profane image he splashes across the screen. He indulges all his favorite passions, even while playing around in the framework of a crime-caper-comedy. Strippers, cocaine, people walking away from explosions in slow motion - it's all still here. But it's re-appropriated; divorced from the fetishistic tone of his previous films. It's hilariously disconcerting.
It's not as surprising as you may think, considering the fact that Bay's a huge fan of the Coen Brothers (just look at the supporting cast of the "Transformers" trilogy if you don't believe him.) He's inherited their appreciation for the comic potential in human misery, in utter depravity, in suffering. But he's inherited none of their belief in a higher power beyond that pain. Bay's film is brazenly dark; it's downright nihilistic.
In fact, if "Pain & Gain" has a problem, it's that it's too unrelenting. A few shocking twists and turns late in the game don't feel quite so shocking as they might in other filmmakers hands, if only because everything that's preceded them has already been portrayed with such a cruel overcast. Bay can't manage to amp up the momentum as the film proceeds on - but that's only because the volume is already turned up to 11 from the very first frame.
This is the poetry of frat boys, roid ragers and drunkards. It's a true Michael Bay film.