Director Michael Bay (“Transformers,” “Armageddon”) conned us this past weekend. In “Pain & Gain,” the friend of the event movie went indie, or his version of it, working with a $25 million budget and, as he told “Access Hollywood,” having “just actors acting and me with a camera.”
“Pain & Gain” is the same jumpy mess as his other movies. It's certainly no great artistic risk, unless you count economic efficiency. I picture Bay, learning of the movie's $20 million opening weekend and bellowing, “I fooled them all!” before diving into a lake of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck.
Not surprisingly, the director's work (or what I've seen at least) is devoid of joy, especially when it comes to telling a good story. He can create pretty pictures – the scenes in “Pain & Gain” drip with overripe hues and possess a buoyant energy that lasts when the action slows – but Bay does nothing useful with them. Based on a true story, “Pain & Gain” might as well be based on a steroids-induced nightmare. The movie is incoherent and obnoxious and has no ideas other than what it shouts at you.
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a Miami personal trainer, fancies himself as a self-made man. In 1994, by all outward appearances, he's got it made. He's ripped, and Sun Gym is the hot spot for strippers, meatheads, and assorted wannabes. That's not enough for Daniel, who believes the American dream owes him more.
Without a college education and any skills that don't involve lifting heavy objects, he can only go so far, so he sets his sights on Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a wealthy client whose corrosive personality makes him a good target. Or something.
Daniel and his two co-workers (Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie) kidnap Kershaw and torment him for a couple of weeks before he signs everything over to Lugo. The three friends burn through the cash, causing their lives to go into a tailspin, which, in Bay's case, means bombarding us with noise and flash and colors from the juice aisle.
Under a Steadicam hand, this twisty, character-driven tale could have been a smart crime comedy about thugs and pretenders, like “Get Shorty” or even “Goodfellas.” But Bay only knows how to use story as a weapon. He can't direct for comedic or dramatic impact. He can't transition between subplots and characters because he wants your attention right now. Example: Kershaw makes a critical phone call from his hospital bed. Bay decides that scene needs a little something extra, specifically an obese resident nearly soiling himself. What?
In Bay's world, the wood chipper was the star of “Fargo;” the visual assault of slow motion and quick cuts is his air, water, and soil. And it prevents him from performing unpleasant tasks, like humanizing his lead character, a rock-stupid murderer. Or having one person tell the story (instead of six) so the audience doesn't feel like it has resided in a centrifuge for two-plus hours. Or employing story and emotion to take the patronizing edge off the sordidness and sizzle.
“Pain & Gain” reveals the sad truth about Michael Bay: he has nothing original or noteworthy to tell us. What's disturbing is that I don't think that bothers him.
-For more of Pete's cinematic musings, visit whatpeteswatching.blogspot.com or follow him on Twitter, @PeteCroatto.