My prediction for my review of Pain & Gain was that it would be one sentence long, and that sentence would be: “This movie is perfect.” At dinner with a friend before the movie, he said that he was going in with very low expectations. I said that I was going in with very high expectations, and that I was pretty sure they were going to be met. From the trailers and the promotional materials and the occasional interview, it seemed like Pain & Gain was going to be to Michael Bay as a filmmaker what The Wrestler was to Mickey Rourke as an actor. Like Amistad standing on the shoulders of his ancestors to win a court case, everything in his life had led up to this one, perfect moment. Had I done even the most cursory of research about the movie ahead of time, I might have had some inkling of the problems to come. For example, the fact that it was based on a true story about a group of MURDERERS but was now being portrayed as a lightly comedic romp full of hunks. Just as an example. Needless to say, my movie review of Pain & Gain is going to be a little longer than one sentence, and none of them will include the word “perfect,” although they might include the words: “homophobic,” “misogynistic,” “anti-semitic,” “disgusting,” and “nightmare.”
The movie is nominally about Danny Lugo, an ex-con turned personal trainer in Miami who teams up with a couple other knuckleheads (The Rock and Anthony Mackie) to kidnap a Jew (Tony Shaloub) and force him to sign over all of his money and property, and then things go bad. But what the movie is really about is how Michael Bay’s brain is broken. As I left the theater, I turned to that same friend who had gone in with low expectations and was still disappointed, and I said “Michael Bay is a genuinely bad person.” You cannot make a movie like this without having a supremely foul world view. At one point, there is a scene featuring a Neighborhood Watch meeting in a wealthy Miami suburb. Mark Wahlberg points to his stripper compatriot and asks which of the neighborhood men wants to pretend to be a rapist for a bit of personal safety role playing. All of the hands shoot up. Mark chuckles, because come on guys, this isn’t a gang rape. That’s what he says: “Come on, guys, this isn’t a gang rape.” I guess that’s for another meeting. The wives are so mad, LOL, that all of their husbands want to be rapists, but only because they are jealous and old. This is just a two minute throwaway scene, by the way. It has nothing to do with anything.
In another universe you can imagine a version of Pain & Gain that makes some kind of commentary on the American Dream, or the ways in which America’s broken value system leads to death. This movie does not do that, because the sour American Dream this movie might critique is built on a foundation of Michael Bay tropes.
The heroes, or anti-heroes as the case may be, drive sports cars and do cocaine and fuck strippers and collect their money into piles. And yes, they are dopes, and yes they get in over their heads, but the entire cinematic history of Michael Bay suggests that sports cars, cocaine, strippers, and piles of money are THE REAL HEROES. The kidnapping, murder, and extortion schemes are just the Comic Relief. There is no lesson to be learned from the sad story of Danny Lugo and his friends/victims. At one point, the boys shove the Jew that they have kidnapped, beaten, and robbed over the course of a month into an SUV, pour alcohol down his recovering alcoholic mouth, douse the SUV with gasoline and light it on fire. As they walk away, the SUV explodes in a beautiful fireball, as SUVs in Michael Bay’s world are apt to do. With a LIVING HUMAN BEING INSIDE OF IT. In another universe, this is a commentary on action movies, and how so often the stunning and exciting visuals don’t account for the human cost of the violence. Nope! They just blew up a car with a living human being inside of it because CAR EXPLOSIONS ARE COOL AND THIS IS A FUN SUMMER MOVIE. Later, they will try and run the Jew’s face over with a different SUV. For laughs.
It mostly just feels like Pain & Gain was written by its main characters. “Hey, remember the time when we killed that lady by injecting her with too much horse tranquilizer in Carl’s bathroom? That was hilarious. Fist bump. You are my hero.”
One of the criticisms I heard levied against Spring Breakers was that it was too nihilistic. Maybe. And yet, in comparison to Pain & Gain, Spring Breakers is a testament to the triumph of the human will. At least the girls in Spring Breakers, while misguided and doomed, aren’t treated as disposable, functionally retarded sex garbage. If both movies are tone poems about The Way We Live Now, Harmony Korine is Robert Frost and Michael Bay is the inside of a diet Snapple cap. If there was a way for diet Snapple to be homophobic.
Which might be the most fascinating aspect of the movie. In the first half hour, while we are literally just meeting all of the characters for the first time and establishing some basic facts about them, The Rock punches a dude in the face as hard as he can, nearly killing him, for being gay. UH OH. Things don’t get much better from there. I actually cannot think of another movie that uses so many dildos as punchlines, nor have I ever heard of a police detective dismissing an entire kidnapping and extortion investigation just because a dildo was found in the victim’s car. Time and again the movie reminds us that gay people should be assaulted, and never trusted, but here is the thing:
THIS IS A MOVIE ABOUT MEN WHO LOVE EACH OTHER’S BODIES ABOVE ALL ELSE. Mark Wahlberg and The Rock and Anthony Mackie don’t get ripped for the women in their lives, they get ripped FOR EACH OTHER. And yes, there are some tits in this movie (there is even a picture of tits shown during the closing credits, AFTER a judge has sentenced the men TO DEATH) but for every pair of tits there are 50 lingering shots of well oiled pectoral muscles. So maybe enough with the hate crimes and the pro forma gay bashing when your movie is literally the gayest thing I have ever seen.
Incidentally, you can read the account of the real Danny Lugo and his crimes in the Miami Herald. It’s a nightmare!
It was only after seeing the movie that I started to be bothered by the culture that had already established itself around the movie. There are posters for Pain & Gain at my gym, featuring the Rock and Mark Wahlberg sitting on a weight bench. The suggestion is that if you like exercise or fitness, you are going to like this movie. And maybe you will, I guess, but for altogether far more horrifying reasons. And then there is the issue of Mark Wahlberg’s line of dietary supplements that he is releasing in partnership with GNC to coincide with the release of the movie. He claims that he used his own supplements to put on 40 pounds of muscle for the role, which is almost certainly not true, but even worse, THE ROLE IS OF A TORTURER AND MURDERER. So, like, what are you even saying? That this is something we should aspire to? Yes, I think that is exactly what he is saying. Michael Bay and Mark Wahlberg aren’t suggesting that everyone should get into murder, but they definitely seem to think that, with the small hiccup of the murders, these guys had pretty much everything else figured out.
And that, like this movie, is terrible!