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It Ain’t Perfect: But Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain Is Enjoyable

Pain & Gain
Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely based on the New Times articles by Pete Collins
Paramount, 2013

The latest entry from Michael Bay isn’t a big action movie.  It’s actually something along the lines of Stephen Soderbergh’s The Informant!, only done in that swooping-camera, jarring editing, linger-over-hot-chicks style that has made Bay a much-vilified star director.  Because there is still a lot of that strange Michael Bay idiocy that creeps into Pain & Gain, it keeps it from being a total classic.  But for a Michael Bay movie, this is pretty good, with a great performance by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson constantly pulling the film higher than it should ever reach.

Pain & Gain is based on articles written by Pete Collins for New Times detailing the true story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), who “believes in fitness.”  This drive to be better, stronger, and in top physical condition, has still led to a humdrum life: he’s awkward around women, he has a crappy job as a personal instructor, and he really starts believing in these self-help “stop being a wuss” talks of Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), who believes in the simple philosophy that you’re either a “doer” or a “don’ter.”

To Daniel, being a “doer” means doing something awful to rich prick Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), a guy who enlists Daniel to be his instructor, has a bunch of dickish things to say about wealth and women, and can’t remember Lugo’s name.  It gets into Daniel’s head to make it so that Victor signs away loads of his cash over to him.  Lugo brings in his friend Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), who feels he owes Danny after coming to him out of shape and becoming a super-lean physical specimen (with the aid of HGH in breast milk, also).  They need one more, and that person happens to be born-again Christian Paul Doyle (Johnson), who reluctantly signs on to this after previous trouble with the law and cocaine.

The plan is pretty dumb.  Lugo thinks he can kidnap Kershaw and then get him to sign some papers giving him $3 million dollars without knowing what a notary does, thinking that producing the documents with the signatures will be good enough.  But sometimes, dumb people run into dumb luck, as Lugo finds a way to get his boss John Mese (Rob Corddry), who is a notary, to skirt the law.  The only thing they need to do now is kill Kershaw, which proves extremely difficult.  Problem for Kershaw is, no one believes his story.

From here, the movie becomes a madcap misuse of funds.  Kershaw hires private detective Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) to find hard evidence they are doing something illegal.  At first, it’s nothing: Lugo moves into Kershaw’s house and makes it his own dream home.  Doyle buys a new house and gets involved with a stripper (Bar Paly) who thinks the gang is a bunch of CIA operatives.  Adrian gets married to a nurse (Rebel Wilson) who knows his worst secret: his penis ain’t what it used to be because of all the steroids.  But some other drugs get him going again, she falls in love with him.  But with dumb people and a dumb luck taste of success, the money isn’t used wisely and things get bad.

The movie is often funny, and Johnson is the main reason, although Wahlberg and Mackie also have their moments.  Bay too often gets in the way of all this, however, and a movie that could be really enjoyable can often take some downswings–for instance, Bay has to focus on a guy sharing a hospital room with Kershaw who has no control over his bowels.  Bay’s eye for strippers is amazing, as he gives them just about as much weight as anything else in the film with his swooping and lingering camera.  The choppy editing makes this a lot dumber than it should be, many times getting into some odd bad Tony Scott or bad Oliver Stone territory.  This is why I look back at The Informant!, which found a way to make dumb into a smart movie.

But the movie is saved by a funny script and good performances.  It’s one of Bay’s best–I still like his overlooked The Island, and I love the nutty goofiness of The Rock and even (for some people at least) Armageddon, and this fits alongside those pretty nicely.  Bay is a human punchline when it comes to directors, but he’s never been “the worst.”  He’s just the most successful of the bad.  Pain & Gain is nowhere close to a masterpiece, but it ultimately works.

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