There’s more than a little pride swallowing in admitting this, but, for better or worse, Michael Bay is an auteur. His gleefully brash and unapologetically skin-deep oeuvre—with its Neanderthal macho men (except when they’re simpering queers), sex-toy women (except when they’re obese sows) and giant robots (except when they’re hurtling asteroids)—is certainly distinctive. You know you’re watching a Bay film with one glance, and if the ejaculate-slick imagery doesn’t immediately clue you in, the nonsensically pounding soundtrack will. “I make movies for teenage boys. Oh, dear, what a crime,” the director has been quoted as saying, though he’s found a few champions among the academic set—like his old Wesleyan instructor Jeanine Basinger—as well as several younger cinephiles who have argued for the avant-garde qualities of his visuals.
This writer has rolled his eyes many times at those defenses, but the news that Bay would be helming a smaller, people-only character piece between Feature Length Hasbro Commercial III and IV still piqued my interest. That Pain & Gain was also based on a true story detailed in several articles by Pete Collins in the Miami New Times—about a crew of South Florida bodybuilders involved in a bloody kidnapping, extortion and murder plot circa 1995—added another intriguing wrinkle. What would happen when Bay had to deal solely with actual humans, instead of the Transformers series’ digital behemoths or the frathouse supermen of Bad Boys (1995), The Rock (1996) and Armageddon (1998)? The thought of this man-boy-among-men using his uniquely (ahem) juvenile gifts to deliver an American-Dreamers-on-steroids farce seemed pregnant with pungent possibility.
Any glimmer of hope is quickly dispelled not long after a deadening, unsurprisingly over-the-top opening sequence—in which the gang’s iron-pumping ringleader, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), makes a futile escape attempt from a SWAT team—filmed in headache-inducing shaky-cam and fetishized slow motion (the characters’ cocky war faces become priapic friezes of masculine aggression). It would be kind to call this satire; what it comes off as is a pummeling, testosterone-fueled sensory assault that the film then makes minor variations on for two very long hours.
Most of Pain & Gain is an extended, multiple-voiceovers flashback that tells of the Keystone Cops–like efforts of Lugo, Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) to swindle an officious millionaire gym member (Tony Shalhoub), and of the increasingly sanguine fallout. To be fair, there are black-comedic possibilities in every scene. A bullet-severed toe becomes a running sight gag that culminates in a humorous, McMansion-set homage to Yojimbo. Plus, several inspired uses of blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em supertitles (the best having to do with the aggressively religious Doyle’s cocaine addiction) hit some antic sweet spots, even if they never approach the ADD hilarity achieved by Bay’s colleagues in aural and visual chaos, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank).
Otherwise, it’s M.B. business as usual: You’ve got your jacked-up, Jerry Bruckheimer–sanctioned aesthetic that jettisons all editorial coherence. You have your virulent disgust for non-Caucasians (you again, Ken Jeong?) and women of all shapes and sizes (poor Rebel Wilson is reduced to an African-American-desiring sight gag as Doorbal’s plus-size nurse girlfriend). Should we even mention the crinkle-faced fear of sex outside the hetero norm? (Ew, dildos…for homos!) Or the rancid jingoism—all those “Morning in America” shots of the Stars and Stripes—that the filmmaker half-assedly tries to pass off as searching, soul-of-a-nation burlesque?
You’d think the tabloid vulgarity of this true-crime case might make for a choice pairing with Bay’s unabashed, anything-goes crassness—pointed persiflage taken to anabolic extremes. But national lampoon does not become him. Bay can’t ever go deeper than a scornful smirk, and though he occasionally chances on a Van Gogh–worthy visual squiggle, the effect is not unlike an unmonitored child painting with his own feces. By the time a private investigator played by Ed Harris bemoans people’s lack of focus on life’s “little things,” you want to hide your face in embarrassment at Pain & Gain’s blatant disingenuousness. It takes balls to be this haughtily hypocritical. Someone could use a good swift kick.
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich