Thursday, May 2, 2013

Pain & Gain (Michael Bay, 2013)

As an introductory statement of theme, Daniel Lugo’s (Mark Wahlberg) maxim “I believe in fitness” invokes “I believe in America” less than “I was born a poor black child.” An improbably charismatic bodybuilder who has internalized boilerplate self-motivating one-liners as Zen profundity, Daniel’s drive contrasts sharply with the limitations of his milieu, his can-do attitude employed only to surge recruitment for the gym where he works as he continues to collect a meager paycheck for his troubles.

Danny (and most of the other prominent characters given a voiceover) constantly references the pull of the American Dream, but he his ostensible commitment to hard work is merely a smokescreen for a shortcut to wealth in the form of a plan to kidnap and extort a particularly loathsome client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub). Victor mirrors Daniel’s physical achievements with financial ones, his boasts of assets triggering something primal in Daniel. One man’s dedication to honing his body as a sign of his discipline pulls in pathetic wages while a lanky, out-of-shape twerp sits back and enjoys the good life. As Daniel later tells Victor, he does not merely want want Victor wants, he wants Victor not to have it.

Recruiting two of his meathead chums, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), whom he will later correctly assess as respectively impotent and incompetent, Daniel carries out a scheme comical in its half-assed planning and clueless execution but gradually more sinister in its chaotic outcomes.

To the outside observer, and, at times, even some within the makeshift gang's circle, Daniel’s plan is barely formed and does not take into account the inevitability of the gang’s discovery and punishment; Daniel, who presents himself as an entrepreneurial go-getter, does not even know what a notary is when he takes in a forcibly extracted signature to collect Victor’s funds. These men, however, see themselves as geniuses who cannot lose, turning Bay’s usual style into something approaching comic critique.

For the first time, Bay shoots his film not as he seeks to portray his caricatural American types but as the characters see themselves. His incoherent editing visualizes the gaps in their plot, bounding forward so restlessly back to shots of their cut physiques or of the perks of a richer lifestyle that the tiny details are always overlooked. The director’s fondness for craning low-angle shots, tricks of forced perspective that turn humans into giants seemingly at the same height as skyscrapers (or Autobots), cheekily turns these buffoons into the heroes of their perceived story as they grow ever more horrific in their crumbling patience and profligate waste of ill-gotten gains. A car explodes in a purple fireball, confetti falls in strips big enough to be dollar bills in a palatial strip club, and even the sun seems to streak in neon. In a bewildering turn of events, Bay admits the absurdity of his style, partially converting the garish to the witty.

The director’s minor artistic gains are soon negated, however. The bizarre story upon which the film is based offered a perverse glimpse into what happens when Michael Bay characters are set loose on the world, but because the real-life actions of Daniel Lugo and his cohorts already reflect the uncontrollable masculine aggression of Bay’s cinema, the director’s mocking tone throughout the film cannot overpower how much his own perspective meshes with that of his characters. Moments of critical distance serve only to show this unity of thought; Bay casts Rebel Wilson as Adrian’s nurse partner for the easy stereotype of a black man with a fat white woman (Mackie exclaims his love for large women throughout, just in case this wasn’t clear), and homophobia hangs in the air with lame jokes involving sex toys and, more disturbingly, a scene of a gay man being beaten that is only played for its true repugnance for a few seconds before the film scrambles to move past the moment as quickly as possible.

The best that can be said for Pain & Gain, and this is no small matter for a spectacle-oriented filmmaker like Bay, is that it features a host of great performances. Wahlberg, always sincere as an actor (sometimes to a fault), digs into the same energies that powered his breakout work in Boogie Nights, pulling out a combination of impetuous man-child cluelessness and terrifying aggression. Danny’s mask of careful professionalism crumbles into jibbering wounded pride and humiliation when someone finds one of the gaping holes he leaves in his various plans. Mackie has fun with Adrian’s impotent frustrations, while Shaloub makes every second count as a man who endures unconscionable torture yet still emerges unlikable. Shaloub’s every gesture is a comic high, down to minute details like the way he tenses his shoulders when Paul puts a meaty hand on his head, then slumps with both relief and deep irritation when Paul asks the half-Jew if he wishes to convert.

The ludicrousness of proselytizing under torture gives Paul some of the weirder character material, and Johnson plays it up with a show-stealing performance that practically demands he receive the superstar status he’s aimed for the past decade. An unabashed caricature of a man who goes along with every criminal act even as he aims to go straight, Johnson nevertheless brings out a melodramatic insight into a specific kind of born-again Christian, one who takes the concept of a baptismal rebirth literally. His faith keeps the awareness of his recidivism into crime and substance abuse at bay, Johnson’s wide eyes and meek protests constantly juxtaposed with his willingness to beat the pulp out of someone at a moment’s notice. Johnson is so magnetic that he even attracts the film’s worst elements, as Pain & Gain depicts his nightmarish hypocrisy as sympathetic compared to his two comrades, providing an outlet for a movie that flirts with artistic breakthrough when it provides no escape for either victim or perpetrator.

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