Michael Bay is to directing what Dane Cook is to comedy. They are both among the top earners in their respective fields -- instead of being paid a flat fee, Bay gets a percentage of his films' box office gross after the studio recoups production and advertising costs, a strategy which earned Bay $80 million on the first Transformers film. Both are wildly popular with their fans -- in 2007, Cook became only the second comedian in history to sell out Madison Square Garden while many working comedians struggle to even make a living. But despite this, Bay and Cook are both reviled by critics and many of their peers who blame them for dumbing down and doing irreparable harm to the fields they've dedicated their careers to, subduing their fans with volume and bluster instead of substance.
Bay's latest film, Pain & Gain, seems to partially be a response to this criticism. With a $25 million budget that's probably less than what a Transformers sequel spends on fake sweat for Shia LaBeouf, Pain & Gain tells the true story of a trio of Miami weightlifters whose dreams of quick money turned into a crime spree involving kidnapping, torture, dismemberment, and murder. But after a decade of making the biggest, dumbest, most bloated cinematic spectacles the world has ever seen, can Bay scale things down and entertain an audience without the use of explosions and constantly-moving cameras? Watch my ReThink Review of Pain & Gain below (transcript following).
For over a decade, director Michael Bay has symbolized the dumbing down of cinema, with films that forego things like coherent storytelling, interesting characters, logic, and human emotion in order to bludgeon audiences into a dazed summertime stupor with a non-stop maelstrom of destruction, dizzying camera movement, deafening sound, and gratuitous titillation. This is best exemplified by his stewardship of the megabucks Transformers franchise, where Bay's contempt for his audience's intelligence seems palpable. But some have posited that Bay is just making this schlock for the money, and that Bay is actually yearning to make more substantive, thought-provoking films if he wasn't so busy cranking out and planning Transformers sequels. His latest film, the musclehead crime comedy Pain & Gain, is supposed to exemplify these loftier ambitions, though what it eventually reveals over an unnecessarily long 130 minutes is that Bay isn't nearly the director he either thinks he is or hopes to become.
Pain & Gain apparently sticks pretty closely to the true story of Daniel Lugo, a bodybuilder and trainer at a Miami gym played by Mark Wahlberg who shares the optimism, obliviousness, and delusional confidence of Wahlberg's breakout character in Boogie Nights, porn star Dirk Diggler. Daniel, who was once jailed for fraud, is inspired by a motivational huckster (played by Ken Jeong) to seize the life and success he deserves. In Daniel's mind, that means kidnapping and ripping off one of his gym clients, a rich and arrogant loudmouth named Victor Kershaw (played by Tony Shaloub). Knowing he can't do it alone, Daniel enlists the help of Adrian Dorbal, a fellow gym rat (played by Anthony Mackie) who's become impotent due to steroid use, and Paul Doyle, a newly-released ex-con (played by Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson) who's found Jesus.
After some boneheaded failed attempts to abduct Kershaw, the trio are finally able to kidnap him and torture him into signing away his home and fortune, and for a time (with the help of a bungled police investigation) they seem like they may actually get away with it. But with their stupidity and irresponsibility compounding their mistakes and a sharp private detective played by Ed Harris on the case, the trio's actions become more desperate, violent, and sloppy, leading to more kidnapping attempts, murder, and dismemberment, but in ways more designed to elicit laughs than screams from the audience.
With movies like Fargo and No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers have shown what you can do with movies about crimes that violently spin out of control. And there are plenty of good and not so good films about dummies who try to pull off a scam and get in over their heads. But while Bay is probably hoping to show off what he's learned from better films, it seems like the bad habits he picked up making profitable crap have become ingrained.
The film starts with Daniel declaring his belief in fitness, and Pain & Gain is supposedly about the pursuit of the American Dream, but the film largely abandons these themes. The film mostly fails in taking us inside the world of bodybuilders, their mindset, and how their devotion to weightlifting informs the way they see the world and themselves. Nearly every named character narrates at least part of the film, a tricky thing for even a great director to pull off, but in Bay's hands, it's gimmicky, pointless, and inconsistently handled, as is the use of onscreen text. There's music playing over nearly every second of the film, as if Bay doesn't have faith in the dialogue or is afraid of quiet moments. And while Bay clearly relishes the freedom he has with the film's R rating, Pain & Gain is WAY too long, making the film's cavalcade of hot and/or dead bodies feel increasingly gratuitous.
The film's brightest spot is Johnson, whose character has the most developed arc as he struggles to stay sober and Christian in the midst of so much crime, violence, and decadence. But while Pain & Gain is far from Bay's worst film, the jury's still out on whether years of Transformers sequels have left him incapable of making a truly good one.