The best scene of Mark Wahlberg’s movie career was the one in “Boogie Nights” in which Wahlberg’s dim bulb and his two similarly limited buddies go to a rich guy’s house and try to steal from him. So why not an entire movie extrapolated on the exact same premise- one also based on a true story, and set in a South Florida milieu of sun, beautiful women, guns and cocaine?
The result is “Pain and Gain,” and it’s much, much less than it should be. An intriguing premise, and what I’m guessing started out as a pretty decent script (by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley), has fallen into the less-than-trustworthy hands of director Michael Bay.
The movie is being touted as a back-to-basics move for Bay, but the director’s unmistakable sensibility- of excess, debauchery and all-around cinematic thuggery- is evident in just about every frame. This is just a nihilistic, scuzzy movie, and not it’s not even nihilistic or scuzzy in an interesting way.
The film is based on series of newspaper articles, from the Miami New Times about a gang of criminals, all of them centered around a Miami bodybuilding gym, who staged a series of kidnappings in the mid-’90s. The leader is Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), a big-dumb-guy personal trainer inspired by “Scarface,” self-help seminars and vague notions of the American Dream to make something of his life.
He teams up with born-again Christian ex-con Paul (Dwayne Johnson) and gym regular Adrian (Anthony Mackie) to kidnap Victor (Tony Shalhoub), a wealthy, unscrupulous businessman. But because just about every character is a blithering idiot, things don’t go quite as planned.
“Pain & Gain” actually gets off to a great start, with a Wahlberg monologue that sums up his plans, ones largely shaped by the influence of an obviously fraudulent self-help guru (Ken Jeung.) We get the sense that Wahlberg’s worldview is one tall tower of bullshit, which can’t long survive contact with the real world. We almost get the impression that we’re looking at a whip-smart satire of on-the-make douchebags like this guy.
The rest of the movie, alas, is firmly on the side of the douchebags. The comedy hinted at by the first act is all but absent, unless you really can’t get enough of gay-bashing, fat-girl jokes or midget jokes. And don’t even get me started on the torture scenes.
There’s an ever-present air of bullying and mean-spiritedness. Don’t let the uncharacteristic dearth of explosions fool you. All Michael Bay traditions are in evidence, starting with aggressive misogyny; what’s one fat-girl joke when you can toss in 15? The way the very talented Rebel Wilson is treated here is particularly, glaringly wrong.
And that’s to say nothing of Shalhoub’s entire character, who’s half-Jewish, half-Colombian, and plays up all the worst stereotypes of both. Or of the moment in which a character physically assaults a man for making gay advances at him, and the movie treats it as an applause line.
There are also a couple of outright thefts from the Tarantino canon, including one sequence in which a group of criminals must clean up a dead body before one of their wives comes home from her overnight nursing shift. It also doesn’t help that the film is too long by at least a half hour and the narrative is formless and overlong with little forward momentum. Here’s one scene of the characters being idiots, and here they are being idiots again.
Johnson is the highlight of the movie, playing a character who’s all over the map, bouncing back and forth throughout from “gentle Christian” to “out-of-control addict.” Wahlberg is less impressive, as the role of a dimwitted gym employee knee-deep in a criminal conspiracy was much better played by Brad Pitt in “Burn After Reading.”
Wahlberg just gives his standard performance, albeit looking jacked to a preposterous degree; the changes in Wahlberg’s physique as he’s aged from his 20s to his 40s are almost identical to those of Barry Bonds. And you have to hand it to Anthony Mackie; ten years later and he’s at last appeared in a movie more loathsome than “She Hate Me.”
“Pain & Gain” is a movie by assholes, for assholes, about assholes. If you’re yourself an asshole, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy it.