“Their American Dream is bigger than yours,” or so says one of Pain & Gain’s taglines. Michael Bay’s newest film featuring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie may be a story fueled by the same burning desire for success American citizens are known for, but if Bay’s vision of the American Dream truthfully constitutes the mentality of all of Americana, we are in for a world of hurt.
Pain & Gain tells the true, and just to repeat myself for the people that don’t believe me, true story of Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), Paul Doyle (Johnson), and Adrian Doorbal (Mackie), three bodybuilding meatheads that double as low level convicts. Lugo acts as the leader of this band of misfit toys, and as the movie opens, we hear his internal voice-over conscious tell us that he has spent a lifetime pining for the opportunity to fulfill his dreams of owning a big house, driving foreign cars, and receiving sexual favors from many bikini clad hotties. In essence, Lugo wants what every seventeen to twenty-three year old man-child wants: to bang hot chicks and look cool while doing it. Lugo and his pals get the opportunity to live their dreams after Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) spills all of his deepest, darkest secrets to the soon-to-be criminal ringleader during a mid-afternoon workout session. Kershaw has lived the American Dream. He’s an immigrant that worked his way up from nothing and managed to make a small fortune for himself through pure determination and self-motivation. Oh, and he’s a complete degenerate.
After Lugo finds out about Kershaw’s fortune, he decides that a man of such inhumane moral stature is not truly worthy of steadily increasing capital gain. Just kidding, Lugo and his buddies are complete and utter morons. In reality, Lugo gets it in his head that he, a full time bodybuilder, is criminally capable of kidnapping and robbing Kershaw’s fortune away from him. He hatches a flawed plan, hires his aforementioned crew, and embarks on a snatch and grab adventure that fails so miserably, Dwayne Johnson’s character ends up barbequing fingerprints off of two pairs of severed hands. That’s twenty fingerprints! 20!
While Pain & Gain may occasionally dip into the realm of the theater of the absurd, it is essentially a crime comedy. Mark Wahlberg, who starred in another ridiculous albeit fictional cop comedy a few years back called The Other Guys, expertly maneuvers the inner psyche of a human being that clearly does not have all of his cerebral synapses firing. Denise Chamian, the lead Casting Director for the film, did an excellent job finding actors that have the rare ability to appear just slightly more cognitively receptive than breathing corpses on camera. Yet, each character is driven off the proverbial deep end through different vices. Doyle is blinded by a false sense of religion, Doorbal clouded by physical perfection, and Lugo by the American dream itself. All three men may be stupid, but screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do a great job giving each character a distinct, relatable flaw.
Lugo’s foggy picture of happiness is shared with another key figure in this film, but it’s not someone in front of the camera, it’s the puppet master himself lurking behind the scenes. Michael Bay has made a name for himself supplying visual fodder for every film studio’s key demographic: 16-25 year old males. Bay is a master at creating light hearted, over the top; stylized action films. Pain & Gain, on the surface, is exactly that. The movie has explosions. The movie has unbelievable, slow motion action sequences. The movie has many attractive, basically naked women (here’s to you Bar Paly) doing provocative stuff on screen for the enjoyment of horny teenagers and dirty middle-aged men. Yet, there is an unmistakable, beating heart behind this film that no Transformers film has ever been able to supply to an audience. In between all of the Hard-R insanity of this film, Bay is masterfully able to create a feeling of desperate hope for three central characters that are 99.9% hopeless.
For Michael Bay, Pain & Gain successfully accomplishes two tasks for the director. 1) It proves that the director is capable of telling a riveting story without the use of mechanical, CGI robot protagonists. 2) It solidifies his position as #1 on every feminist’s most wanted list.
Pain & Gain may not be ethnically or politically correct, but it sure is a lot of fun to watch. If that says anything about my American Dream, I don’t really care. It’s my dream, not yours.
By David Morris