Pain & Gain: first, that Michael Bay, for all that I frequently can't stand his adrenaline-first, humanity-never approach to action filmmaking, is nevertheless a better director than Transformers and its sequels, and I think it was the best thing in the world for him to scale back, further back even than the relative sincerity and domesticity of his first picture, Bad Boys, the closest analogue in his canon to this new movie. Freed from the tyranny of multi-hundred-dollar budgets and having to shoot three-quarters of his movies on a green screen, America's poet laureate of extra-mindless explosions and style has found himself again in a film that damn near hums with the sense of joyous experimentation: aye, the results are little more than a weak copy of Tony Scott's style, but the palpable sense of stretching and looking around in the direction is heartening. Michael Bay has a personality again.
Second, I wish that all of this could have come in the form of a movie that didn't make me feel quite so filthy by the time it was all over.
Pain & Gain is based, with considerable embellishment, on events that took place in and around Miami in 1994 and '95. The version of events that writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (troupers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) relate looks basically like this: ex-con Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) manages to get a job at a crappy gym, and in a span of just a few weeks is able to complete reverse its fortunes, making it one of the local meccas for serious bodybuilders. This pleases Lugo, but not as much as it depresses him to be thrust face to face with the unmentionably scummy rich prick Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), the kind of self-made millionaire who views his fortune as a license to treat anybody with even a molecule less cash as the worst kind of idiotic parasite. This riles up a kind of class-consciousness in his trainer that quickly turns into an elaborate plot to kidnap Kershaw and extort his entire fortune; for help with this scheme, Lugo relies on co-workers Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), a dope fiend, and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a recovering alcoholic with a pronounced religious streak. Without giving away anything that happens, because where's the sport in that, things go badly pretty fast, and it takes only a little bit of time before the three musclebound idiot criminals have a nice pile of corpses, a mangled but living and very pissed-off Kershaw looking for them, and an ice-cool detective, Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) pausing in his relentless pursuit only to be dumbfounded at how damnably weird all of this mayhem is. It plays out exactly like Fargo as remade by the stimulation-junkie bros inhabiting the movie.
It is also like Fargo, or at least the version of Fargo watched by people who don't like the Coen brothers, in that it is covered in an impenetrable layer of irony that evinces the smuggest imaginable contempt for the characters. Not that I ask all films to view their characters with any kind of respect or affection; I am a Billy Wilder fan. But Pain & Gain takes it to some really ugly places, not least because it is, however distorted, a reflection of real people. That's mostly because of the detached, leering way that the film trots that factoid out at intervals, legitimising its freakshow events without investing them with any gravity (in which it is the very anti-Fargo, which opened with a fake "Based on a true story" tag), not on any sense of moral outrage (the film is too openly a cartoon comedy that veers into rough stuff only to further its sense of the absurd, to actually trick us into believing that it's a straightforward document), though I wouldn't wish the film on the survivors of the victims.
The real problem with the film is that, in and of itself, it's unbearably snide and superior: the film makes a swell double-bill with the recent Spring Breakers, which likewise had it in mind to satirise a disreputable element of American culture but is too exploitative for the satire to take. For aye, Pain & Gain is clearly - and boy, do I ever mean clearly - attempting to poke fun of the half-baked patriotism of Lugo, who seems to have it in his head that it's un-American to have belly fat, and that attempting to copy the flashy crimes that he's seen in flashy crime movies is striking a blow for democracy. That Michael Bay ends up making exactly the kind of shallow celebration of morally-neutral violence and retrograde masculinity that he's also pointing at and mocking is a hypocrisy so predictable as to not merit the mention; what's more troublesome is the intensity and virulence of the mockery itself. Other than Ed DuBois, nobody gets out of Pain & Gain cleanly: the only real distinction between the people we dislike and the people we like are that half of them are so fucking dumb that we pity them. There's a difference already between Coen-style loving mockery and Wilder-style accusatory satire; but there's a gulf wide enough to be filled with multiple self-sustaining ecosystems between Wilder at his most acidic and the cruelty that Pain & Gain traffics in as a matter of course, especially as pertains to its female characters. But misogyny, like hypocrisy, is so obvious that it barely registers - the shock is that there's one woman with a major speaking role isn't a whore or stripper, though her entire character arc, front to end, consists of "likes big black cock".
What sets Pain & Gain at least a half-step above Spring Breakers is that Bay at least has the decency to embrace the shallowest aspects of his film as cinema, and make the film as good an expression of its tawdriest elements as he can. Which, being Michael Bay, is actually quite a lot. The structure is undoubtedly familiar, with a rotating cast of narrators that couldn't steal from Casino more overtly if Bay had actually cast Joe Pesci instead of just forcing Shalhoub to do his level best Pesci impersonation (as a Colombian Jew, no less!), and a liberal use of self-consciously ironic title cards that deflate the film's attachment to any kind of dramatic stakes and increase its broad sense of humor in roughly equal measure, but the energy is high as hell, even if the most showy directorial flourish in the whole movie, a digitally stitched-together pan that circles between two rooms four or fives times, is copied exactly from Bad Boys II.
It is, then, at least a passably exhilarating exercise in shallow violence comedy (in fact, the longer I think about it, the less I think it's hypocritical, and more that I think it's just self-negating, miserably ineffective satire), buoyed up into something that's almost fun to watch every time that Johnson or, to a lesser extent, Wahlberg open their mouths - both are committed to their dim-bulb characters very fully, and Wahlberg gets to show off his comic timing, though Johnson's focused shifts in his character's comically oversized descent to hell is solid enough, and grounding enough, and humane enough, that I cannot begin to understand why he thought to waste it on this script. It's ghastly damn shallow, but messy in all the ways that make it stickier than better, more enjoyable, less soul-corrupting movies are; God knows I'd never encourage anybody to see Pain & Gain, but I'd even less try to talk somebody out of it, if only to see what they thought about it. Alienating, scuzzy, blastingly day-lit, and colossally weird, it's unlike anything else most directors would have the stamina to put out in theaters, at any rate.