Three Miami Beach musclemen, played by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie, hatch a plot to kidnap a rich guy and force him to sign over all his possessions to them. “Unfortunately,” we are informed at the beginning of Pain & Gain, “this is a true story.” The truth — usually avoided by crime thrillers, but underlined with a crimson flourish in Michael Bay’s steroidal caper comedy — is that most criminals are stupid. If they were smart, they’d find a more respectable way to steal people’s money, like Bitcoin or Congressional lobbying. Instead, in this adaptation of Pete Collins’ stranger-than-fiction report for the Miami New Times on the 1994-95 Sun Gym case, two people die, and two oafs wind up on Death Row.
Film critics would argue that Bay has a rap sheet too. Among the charges: felonious bombast, cruel and unusual mismatched shots, wanton desertion of cinematic humanity, embrace of a military-industrial style of filmmaking, contempt for his movies’ characters and their audiences — all adding up to grand-theft auteurism. That Bay is at the top of one connoisseur’s list of the 26 worst directors of all time (Ed Wood is No. 2) seems not to trouble him. “I make movies for teenage boys,” he has said. “Oh, dear, what a crime.” Actually, that’s no crime. Modern Hollywood has sired plenty of excellent action movies for young males; one of these, Iron Man Three, opens next week. Bay’s offense is that he has made, by any definition of cinematic artistry and technique, bad movies. They tap the laziest part of the audience’s brain, fill it with ugly clamor and leave it feeling not nourished but stuffed. It’s cheap sex for filmgoers’ consumption and his profit.
(READ: Corliss on Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon)
Bay’s sponsors think that’s fine: the 48-year-old Angeleno is among the most reliable minters of box-office gold. His nine features, including Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and three Transformers smashes, have earned more than $4.5 billion worldwide, or nearly $6 billion in real dollars. So when he told the lords of Paramount that he’d direct a fourth Transformers picture only if they’d first let him make Pain & Gain — a small, feverish docudrama, with a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and a pinchpenny (for Bay) budget of $25 million — of course they said yes. Big names occasionally use this sort of leverage to get a personal project greenlit; Bruce Willis starred in The Sixth Sense after Disney agreed to finance Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut novel Breakfast of Champions.
We probably shouldn’t be surprised that Bay’s bijou effort is no art-house meditation. Pain & Gain boasts an even higher decibel level than the Transformers series, and a visual clutter that approaches hoarding. Taking full advantage of his first R-rated film since Bad Boys II a decade ago, the director provides many moments of gore (a man’s head crushed like a casaba by a 45-lb. weight plate), gross-out comedy (a severed big toe fed to a chihuahua) and just plain ewwww (the sight of a fat woman’s pubic hair sprouting like kudzu below her panty line). The film is not Bay unplugged but Bay unleashed — the giddy id inside the gaudy showman. It hurtles along like a two-hour cartoon infused with a schoolyard satirist’s vigor and derision. And on the movie’s own rascally terms, by playing the Sun Gym tragedy the second time as farce, it’s kinda fun.
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On a small plank jutting out of a giant billboard advertising the Sun Gym, a human figure can be seen doing pull-up exercises. This is Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), manager of the workout spa owned by John Mese (Rob Corddry). Danny, who did 15 months’ jail time for fraud, has a vision of America and himself: big, beautiful and ripped. His overweight clients disgust him. Being fat, he believes, is “more than sickening. It’s unpatriotic.” He hangs with guys who take their bodies seriously enough to pump themselves up with weight regimens and additives available in the locker room. Attending a meeting held by motivational guru Jonny Wu (Ken Jeong), who proclaims that “Everyone’s either a do-er or a don’t-er,” Danny decides he’s a do-er, on the fast lane to the American dream. And what will he do? Abduct and fleece Victor “Pepi” Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, doing a wilier Joe Pesci), a Colombian Jew who’s made millions with a restaurant chain. Now all Danny needs are accomplices.
They’re right at the gym. Adrian Doorbal (Mackie) wants to build himself up until he’s so huge he has to “walk sideways through doors” — though his reliance on steroids have given him a case of “defeated phallus syndrome.” Paul Doyle (Johnson) is a soft-spoken Attica graduate who renounced cocaine and found religion. “Jesus Christ has blessed me with many gifts,” he tells a man. “One of them is knocking guys like you the f— out.” (And Bam!)
(READ: Corliss’s take on Dwayne Johnson in G.I. Joe Retaliation)
A stupid man may stir sympathy or pity. But the idiot who thinks he’s smart, and who has the nerve to carry out his cockamamie schemes, is a danger to society and himself. That’s Danny: too dumb to know he’s dumb. Adrian and Paul are game but even lamer. Their plan to kidnap Kershaw in a parking lot goes awry when they corner the wrong BMW. A weapon that Adrian bought doesn’t work; “I need to read the manual,” he mildly observes. When the Three Malefacting Stooges finally capture Kershaw, bind him with duct tape and imprison him for nearly a month, Paul naively befriends his hostage. Then their murder plot — to fill Kershaw with liquor and send his car crashing into a wall — is scuttled because Adrian buckled the victim’s seat belt. So they drive a car wheel over his head. And that doesn’t kill him. (At one point, a sentence zips across the screen to insist that “This is still a true story.”)
A movie about witless crooks (The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, Dog Day Afternoon, Fargo, Four Lions) usually requires at least one relatively smart person, either to catch the bad guys or to sigh knowingly at their imbecilities and clue the viewer that the filmmaker knows they’re dolts. But except for Kershaw, and Ed DuBois (Ed Harris), a retired detective who does some sleuthing for Kershaw, almost everyone in Pain & Gain is dimmer or less attractive than anyone likely to see it.
(READ: Corliss’s review of the scary jihadi comedy Four Lions)
The cops are too lazy to follow up on Kershaw’s story. A hobo pastor (Larry Hankin), whom Paul visits for spiritual guidance, starts slathering over the ex-con’s “sweet glistening muskles” — yes, he pronounces it “musk-cles.” Another gay stereotype, a gun store owner, shrieks erotically for the gang to tase him. And when an actor is good-looking, like Walhberg, Bay shows him drooling in extreme-closeup slo-mo. So lurid is the movie’s burlesque that a few scenes of the detective’s quietly loving banter with his wife (Kelly Rutherfurd) come as a shock greater than any taser.
Between grinding out scripts for the three Narnia movies, Marcus and McFeely wrote You Kill Me, a pretty sweet comedy, directed by John Dahl, detailing the romance of an alcoholic hit man (Ben Kingsley) and a tart-spoken woman (Tea Leoni). There, small characters blossomed; here, they fester and wilt. But the writers keep finding clever ways for Danny and his pals to express their solemn idiocy. They also parcel out the voiceover narrative to five characters — Danny, Paul, Adrian, Kershaw and the detective — to give viewers a shifting perspective, like a battery of cameras at a cage match.
(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of You Kill Me)
Of course, this is not a Marcus-McFelly screenplay but a Bay movie. And whether the writers are pleased with the director’s take on their work, or as annoyed as Paddy Chayefsky was when Ken Russell zazzed up the script for the 1980 Altered States (leading Chayefsky to use a pseudonym on the film), Pain & Gain has Bay’s signature on it, writ large and notarized. For worse or for better, he turned what might have been a modest, quirky crime comedy into the most gigantic, engorged movie ever made on the Hollywood cheap.
To Bay, size matters, and never more so than with the ‘roid gang at Sun Gym. Wahlberg, Johnson and Mackie bulked up to be such wide-bodies that the movie looks as if somebody had accidentally pushed the Stretch button on the remote. A few characters come by their girth naturally, like Adrian’s plus-size wife (Rebel Wilson), who already needs to walk sideways through doors. And some have it thrust upon them: Krisztina (Keili Lefkovitz), the stripper girlfriend of a porn king (Michael Rispoli) the gang does business with, sports a 150cc. implant in each breast. Just the dozen leading actors in this movie — all of whom lend themselves gleefully to the conspiracy — look as if they weigh more than the entire population of The Simpsons‘ Springfield. (For perspective, there’s also an angry dwarf.)
(READ: TIME’s 10 Questions for Mark Wahlberg)
After an hour or so of the guys flexing their mammoths pecs, you may start wondering if the movie is a saturnine comment on Hollywood’s muscle (or muskle) mania — of stars who spend many more hours with their personal trainer than they do with their acting teacher. And why shouldn’t they? In today’s Hollywood, where action films aspire to look like Action Comics, beefcake is the new cheesecake. Every man has to look like a Greek god painted by Frank Frazetta, and every woman… well, what women? Boy-meets-girl long ago gave way to guy-on-guy. And that makes Pain & Gain either the dead end for Hollywood in its Gargantuan era, or a deadpan takedown. With Bay, it’s always hard to know if he’s making fun of his audience or himself.
The film could be a Bay three-way: apology, defense and self-parody. For the director, Danny, Paul and Adrian could represent the three Transformers movies, bloated and bustling, and with a Hasbro toy’s mechanical heart. Or Bay could be trying to prove that he’s faster and cleverer than his perps, and muscular but not quite muscle-bound. All or none of the above: it’s tough, trying to psychoanalyze a moviemaker whom most critics think has no soul to scan.
(SEE: Michael Bay’s spoof trailer for an Angry Birds movie)
Love it or loathe it, the movie’s not boring. It’s like a giant sculpture that is so strange and off-putting, it’s instantly, intriguingly post-modern. Swept up in the film’s pile-driving self-assurance, even Bay-haters may absorb the pain to enjoy the gain.