I'm tempted to call Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain a clever film for dumb people. It operates under the guiding principle that if you put ironic air quotes around everything, you are immune from all criticism. The characters can be vile, the violence gratuitous, the film can be casually misogynistic and anti-Semitic, but hey, that’s okay because it’s all just a joke, people. Lighten up.
The film begins to insulate itself right out the gate by saying, “This is based on a true story . . . unfortunately.” (I laughed.)
It’s Miami in the 1980s. Our “hero” is Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a body builder and personal trainer who believes that his own physical perfection is merely his first step toward the American dream. One of his clients is a self-made millionaire named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a greedy and grasping little man with a giant Star of David dangling from his hairy chest (for reals). Lugo gets the idea to kidnap Kershaw and get him to sign away his fortune. He recruits two body building cohorts: Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a former cokehead just out of prison, now a guileless born-again Christian; and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), a gym rat who’s been made impotent by his steroid habit.
We’re supposed to find these guys likeable but dunderheaded—overgrown, misguided kids who just happen to do extremely violent and even vicious things. We’re meant to laugh at their stupidity, but root for them, too. Lugo, in particular, is so sentimentalized that once he steals Kershaw’s house, he fulfills his dream to ride atop a giant lawn mower and bond with members of the neighborhood association.
The scene where the boys try to kill Kershaw, several times, in bumbling fashion, is played for laughs—right down to the moment they drive a truck over his skull and Bay shows us a close-up of the tire tread ramming into his head. Kershaw lives, for what it’s worth—so later we can be treated to a glorious scene where his obese hospital roommate has explosive diarrhea all over the bathroom stall. (And if you don’t think Bay shows us aftermath in the stall, you haven’t been paying attention.)
Did I mention the misogyny? Lugo has a stripper girlfriend who's so dumb she makes him seem like a mensa. At one point, he hands her off to Doyle, as if she’s some sort of relay baton.
Yes, Pain & Gain occasionally scores as a black comedy and the acting is committed across the board—Ed Harris brings a much-needed touch of gravitas as a grizzled private eye hired by Kershaw—but, on balance, I found the experience of watching it fairly. . .painful.