Pain & Gain Review: A Dumbbell to Your Senses

It is rather fitting that Pain & Gain is set in the '90s, because most of the time it feels like a music video that would have been played on MTV or MuchMusic.  Except I'd rather watch Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" repeatedly for two hours, because it has better pacing and a more coherent plot.

Pain & Gain is based off a series of articles in Miami New Times about the "Sun Gym gang", a group of incompetent bodybuilders, who committed a series of brutal acts to extort money. There has been some controversy over making a black comedy about the real life brutal kidnappings, torture and murders.  From what I've read, the heinous exploits by Daniel Lugo (played by Mark Wahlberg) and Adrian Doorbal (played by Anthony Mackie) are loosely followed in the film and much like most "true stories" in cinema, large portions of the picture are fictionalized.  This really shouldn't be a massive shocker since "based on true stories" like Braveheart, Argo and Rudy have major alterations of fact and it is always better to see these movies as historical fiction.  Pain & Gain changes the names of the majority of the characters, creates a fictional character in the coke snorting Christian Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), and reimagines large chunks of the account in the original articles.

I don't have any problem with a film about a fictionalized version of tragic events, though I also won't argue that the film may be in bad taste.  Instead, I have a problem with it not being a very good movie.

The picture rapidly fires out loud and explosive scenes with its frenzied cuts.  It is all energetic and colourful, and it is actually a bit refreshing for a film to have a sexy feel with the topless men and the bikini clad women.  But the constant flashing of chaotic scenes risks transforming the most focused adult into an ADHD teenager.  Halfway through, you're just bored with the festival of the flashy and obnoxious.

Even if this is a hyperactive teenager's fantasy, it is a very adult film with the dark subject matter, shots of bare breasts, and graphic violence, but the speeding sports car pacing and elephant stomping lack of subtlety appeals to a younger audience.  Director Michael Bay excels at aggressive and boisterous filmmaking, and this attempt of comedy comes off as another Transformers film but with big muscle heads replacing the giant, smashing robots.  It's a stupid action picture yelling out that it is a black comedy profiling bizarre and quirky characters.

Dwayne Johnson is charming and very funny, and you can see him growing as a real acting talent.  His performance is one of the few glowing areas of the film.  To be fair, Wahlberg and Mackie are humorous as well, and seem to be having fun in their roles.  They deliver some funny moments and have a few witty lines, but the script doesn't allow for anything to linger or breathe.  A proper comedy allows things to settle down and then set up the next joke, but this ends up being an endless stream of chaotic flashy images with some dialogue.

The humour that is given a few minutes to settle in is always of the juvenile kind.  There is one gag that is just a lame poop joke about a fat patient who messes up the bathroom.  Another consists of a sex starved priest that is just a very cliché and tired shot at the Catholic Church.  None of it is even remotely funny, and just takes away from the real dark humour, which is the absurdity of the bodybuilders' vicious scheme to get the money.

It is also hard to laugh when the film is entirely populated with morons and detestable people.  The main characters seem framed to push forward a cynical depiction of the American Dream, as they believe they deserve riches and success.  The problem is they're also framed as heroes and it feels like you're supposed to be rooting for them, even though they're barbecuing severed hands and run over humans.  The victims all end up being just as reprehensible, especially Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) who is abusive and ill-mannered to everyone in the picture.  Even all the background characters turn out to be unlikable, such as the male neighbours who salivate and drool at a scantily clad woman right in front of their wives.

Fargo, a film this one tries to pattern itself after, is an absolutely brilliant picture that is also about dunderhead thieves and some unsympathetic victims, but the writing is much smarter and the characters are actually layered.  There is also Marge Gunderson who is sweet and kind, and has a wonderful relationship with her husband.  Ed Harris is supposed to be that in his role as retired Detective Ed DuBois, but he comes into the film far too late and his part feels more like a plot device.

I realize it is hip and cool to hate Michael Bay.  I actually went into the picture with high hopes, and thought he was going to try to do something different.  This film has an intriguing story, but it needed fine and delicate touches rather than smashing all the plot points onto your head with a sledgehammer.  I'll try to end this review with something positive.  Bay proved to the world that he is fully capable of chucking his stylized film into your face without blowing up an entire major city.  For him, that shows some diversity.

Rating: *½