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Dim-witted bottom-feeders on steroids and coke run amok seeking the American dream in Pain & Gain, a ham-fisted, thick-skulled comic caper about bodybuilders-turned-criminals which, like its three protagonists, fully lives down to its own potential. Intentionally made on the cheap (for $25 million) thanks to its stars taking back-end deals, this is director Michael Bay‘s idea of a low-budget indie-style film, even though the muscles and ammo on view here are only slightly less imposing than those of his Transformers films. Although ostensibly intending to send up characters and a milieu that are crass and vulgar, the film itself shares their affinities to such an extent that this distinction will be lost on audiences whose own lifestyles or aspirations lie in the same general direction. The result will be some muscular box office with the masses, perhaps especially from some overseas markets where the macho allure will combine with a perverse fascination with the depraved way of American life herein revealed.
“Unfortunately, this is a true story,” the narration brightly begins. Equally unfortunately, however, the story is told in a hammer-on-anvil manner that evinces no gift for social satire or sharp cultural insight. Such central topics as the sexually diminishing properties of muscle supplements, the destructive effects of drugs and the stupidity of ramped-up violence will exert their base appeal on a certain public, as will the fact that nearly every woman here is a hooker and/or a stripper or at least behaves like it; swamps any meager critique of the world it pretends to expose.
The opportunistic lowlifes at the center of things could scarcely be more misguided and can only be made vaguely appetizing by virtue of movie star appeal. Adapted from some magazines articles by the screenwriting team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote all three Chronicles of Narnia entries, both Captain Americas and Thor: The Dark World, the script focuses on three guys who are as muscularly developed as they are morally and ethically deprived. The ringleader is Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a glib personal trainer at Miami’s Sun Gym, a “muscle mecca” for the mid-1990s South Beach crowd, a hustler who has far too seriously transformed his workout ethic into a philosophy of life and now dedicates himself to becoming a “doer” so he can live the great life enjoyed by some of his scuzzy but gold-garlanded clients.
Concocting a scheme to kidnap and extort filthy rich wiseguy Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), Daniel recruits two losers dimmer than he is, fellow gym cohort Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), whose defining character trait is privates shrunken to microscopic uselessness by an excess of ‘roids, and ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), whose embrace of Jesus and clean living is a tenuous thing.
It takes them three tries to pull off the kidnapping. Then, even after all manner of unpleasant and clumsy torture, Kershaw proves to be such a combative and resilient captive that he holds out for weeks; nothing can completely break this guy or, when the time comes, even kill him. This s.o.b.’s obstinate survival is supposed to be very funny (and might have been moreso, had the originally cast Albert Brooks remained with the project) but one of the few bits that actually does prove amusing is the spectacle of the three lethal knuckleheads, high out of their minds, presiding over a neighborhood watch meeting once they’ve moved into posh digs with their ill-gotten gains.
With the regular Dade County police shown as self-confessed incompetents, it falls to retired cop Ed Du Bos (Ed Harris) to chase down (as well as his aging body can mange it) the pumped up miscreants, who, now that they’ve burned through one man’s fortune, set their sights on another local moneybags, porn king Frank Grin (Michael Rispoli, very amusing). With a combination of misguided greed, foolishness and sense of their own imperviousness, the boys this time seriously overplay their hand, setting themselves up for a trip to death row, where two of them remain today.
Part of the reason for the film’s overlength at 129 minutes is the ill-judged indulgence of climactic would-be humorous scenes of the lunkheads cleaning up and disposing of the grisly remains of two unnecessary victims, their incompetence at which helps seal their fates. By this time, we know these guys are losers and are going down, and Bay’s skills at slapstick and slow-burn comedy are sufficiently undeveloped to have served as a warning to curtail this interlude.
Wahlberg’s Lugo is the highly toxic sun god around which all the subservient characters orbit at their own peril, and it can’t be said that the actor doesn’t give it his all. Seriously pumped up, he’s a huckster and motivator and painfully unaware self-believer who talks the sort of game that takes in people with no self-esteem and no lives.
More touching, in a weird way, is Johnson’s Doyle, a simpleton who’s all muscle and no I.Q., whose prison-born religious fervor perhaps does offer him his some hope but who’s such a softy he, quite like Lennie in Of Mice and Men, can be manipulated into doing anything by Lugo. Unfortunately, Johnson’s carefully cultivated, highly likable and capable image doesn’t square at all with this character, so that seeing him surrounded by a roomful of giant dildos and being persuaded to kill doesn’t sit well at all.
Mackie’s Doorbal is a fairly thankless part good for a couple of cheap laughs, although the ever-welcome Rebel Wilson as his forgiving plus-size girlfriend delivers some nicely underplayed humor. The omnipresent Ken Jeong punches up his brief role as a brash motivational speaker.
As usual with Bay, the visual and aural style is as over-hydrauliced as the events of display, resulting in an inevitable feeling of overkill.
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