Pain and Gain

Pain and Gain proves that 2013 is the year of insipid crime-thrillers, featuring a bunch of brain-dead protagonists. It is the final chapter in a shallow little trilogy alongside Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. Pain and Gain is not as offensive to the senses as the former, nor does it does possess the latter’s mind-numbing blandness, but there is a cynical streak that runs throughout that makes it just as difficult to watch. This is Michael Bay’s telling of a true story of body-building pea-brains whose warped understanding of the American dream leads them to kidnapping, extortion, and an assortment of other violent crimes.

Michael Bay has never been particularly original, but it is not fair to criticise him for the thematic similarities between this and the works of Korine and Coppola. It is one of those bizarre Hollywood coincidences that occur every now and then. After the clanking mess that was the Transformers trilogy this was supposed to be Bay’s “arthouse” picture; a smaller character piece about lost souls and misguided dreams. The opening scene, however, complete with a roof-top chase and a police shoot-out, suggests that we are in familiar territory, with Bay working well and truly on default setting.

It would be easy to play the satire card in defense of this film; Bay’s attempt to expose the criminals’ stupidity by portraying them as nit-wits with adonis-like figures. For a satire to be successful it has to make ironic, witty observations; Bay’s idea of satire is Mark Wahlberg knocking children to the ground and calling them fat. Subtle, he is not. Instead it almost becomes a satire of his career as a whole. His muscle-bound anti-heroes – basically human Transformers – seem on the verge of spontaneously combusting and wiping out half of Los Angles. The director himself – always guilty of sleazy, lingering shots on scantily clad women – seems incapable filming a shot without half a dozen girls in bikinis lounging in the background.

When not being wholly offensive with its jarring sense of humour or its lecherous ogling of young women, the film is just a muddle. There is a baffling amount of voice-overs from almost every character, which does little more than fill in the blanks of the lazy storytelling. The use of flashback proves equally disjointed as they pop up without warning and end just as abruptly. It is only the work of the cast that stops it from being a total failure, Wahlberg is always reliable when in manic, foulmouth mode, while Dwayne Johnson shows surprising range, switching from simple minded innocent to drug-fueled psychopath in a blink of an eye. They breathe life into unlikable characters in a way that the stars of Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring failed to do. It does not save the film however, as Michael Bay’s attempt at deep and profound merely exposes him as a one-trick pony.

Michael Clancy