For Michael Bay, the director of Armageddon and the Transformers movies, to comment on the excesses of American culture would be a little like — well, Michael Bay commenting on the excesses of American culture.
And yet that's exactly what he does with Pain & Gain, a stranger-than-fiction yarn about a South Florida crime spree that points and snickers in the direction of precisely the supersized grotesquerie that's long been Bay's stock-in-trade. He blankets the film in a tone of smug self-awareness that obscures everything but its bald hypocrisy.
A modest little comedy by Bay's standards — and an unwieldy behemoth by any other's — Pain & Gain gets some early comic mileage out of the get-rich-quick aspirations of a musclehead who believes he's entitled to a big, steroidal hunk of the American dream. This would be Mark Wahlberg, channeling the dim naivete he brought to his starry-eyed young porn star in Boogie Nights, as Daniel Lugo, a pumped-up Miami gym trainer who wants more from life than a crummy apartment and a used Fiero. His job brings him close to the vanilla-scented elite, but only close enough for a seductive whiff before the next monied client walks through the door.
Inspired by a motivational speaker (Ken Jeong) who talks of "doers" and "don't-ers" before skipping the next yacht out of town, Daniel sees an angle when a client, sandwich-shop magnate Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), brags about the millions he has stuffed in offshore bank accounts.
Daniel recruits two other gym rats — born-again cocaine fiend Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and phallically challenged 'roid-abuser Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) — as partners for a crude smash-and-grab job. All the three have to do is kidnap and sedate Kershaw, get him to sign over his lucrative accounts and release him like a fleeced sheep.
Things do not, you'll be startled to hear, go as planned — mainly because the planners lack the collective brainpower to knock over a lemonade stand. They survive (and thrive) for as long as they do only through brute force and moral vacancy, a potent combination for criminal mischief-makers. But the three men are incapable of long-term strategizing, which seems right for drug-enhanced muscleheads: They can grasp the immediate gains of bigger bodies and available women, but can't visualize a future that will inevitably turn them into Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.
Working from Pete Collins' true-crime book, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's screenplay uses the multinarrator effect of films like Martin Scorsese's Casino to get inside the conspirators' empty heads while Bay's camera lays out their music-video dreams.
When Pain & Gain's caper is still in the planning stages, Wahlberg's excited monologues about America — a country that started with "13 scrawny colonies" before becoming the beefed-up juggernaut it remains today — can be a gas. The actor has a talent, after all, for investing even rogues like Daniel with a childlike innocence that's oddly winning.
But as the film grinds along, Bay's exhausting supply of macho consumerist images — from the fleets of Lamborghinis to the low-angle buffet of South Beach hard bodies — undercut the film's attempts at social commentary. He's the last person in Hollywood who has any business decrying the consequences of a culture that encourages taking shortcuts and living large. It's impossible to leave the film believing that Daniel's intentions were corrupt; with Bay telling the story, it's just his execution that was lacking.
This is Bay's attempt to make Fargo, but without the moral ballast of Frances McDormand's pregnant cop around to personify the virtues of a simple, decent, well-proportioned life. The bodies pile up — and for what, the film asks, just as McDormand does in the back of a cruiser when the case has come to a bloody end. "For what?" is a rhetorical question in Fargo. In Pain & Gain, the wages of murder and sin have a luxurious appeal that even Daniel's downfall can't diminish.