Pain and Gain (Paramount Pictures, R)

painandgain 75Dumb people doing dumb things and getting into a lot of trouble in the pursuit of money.


painandgain 500 

I listen to a lot of podcasts about movies, and one of them, called Double Feature, gave a name to a phenomenon which I have long been aware of, but never been able to sum up succinctly. On the episode in question, the two hosts were discussing the entire Children of the Corn franchise, and noted that on IMDB, all of the films in the series had between a 3 and a 3.9 rating. They explained that, for the sake of conversation, they would approach the films as if there were no 4 through 10 ratings, and discuss the merits of each film in relation to each other. A 3.1 was a bad one; a 3.6 was pretty good. They called it the “three point scale.”

Now, a 3 out of 10 is pretty harsh, but to a lesser extent, I’ve always viewed Michael Bay’s films in this way. They’re all trash, but are they good, enjoyable trash (Bad Boys II) or are they irredeemable, loathsome, bottom-of-the-barrel trash (Transformers II)? But now, Michael Bay has broken free of the three-point scale. He has made a film that actually bears comparison with good movies, and it holds up pretty well.

Pain and Gain is based on a true story, and it’s a really good one. It focuses on a trio of bodybuilders who decide to kidnap a rich, morally questionable client and force him to sign over everything he owns. Needless to say, things do not go smoothly. I’ve always figured Bay was a fan of the Coen Brothers from how many of their cast members he borrows; now he’s found a story that would fit right into their wheelhouse: dumb people doing dumb things and getting into a lot of trouble in the pursuit of money.

From reading up on the actual events, it’s clear that the Hollywood versions of these characters are much softer and more likable than their real-life counterparts. There could be an alternate version of this movie that was really dark and brutal, but that isn’t this movie. This is a comedy, and since the filmmakers keep some of the most unbelievable aspects of the story intact, I think that’s the right way to go. They’ve also done a lot of condensing of characters. In real life, there were many more people involved, but here it’s mostly limited to the three leads. This is an uncharacteristic choice for Bay, whose movies are usually overpopulated with unnecessary side players. I like that the focus here is narrower.

I should discuss the three leads, since Bay himself has referred to this as a “little character story.” Mark Wahlberg is an actor about whom I don’t really have strong feelings, but I was surprised how much I liked him here. People don’t think of him as a comedic actor, but he’s really funny, and really good about not winking at the audience. Like in Boogie Nights, he’s playing a bit of an idiot who thinks he’s a lot cooler than he is, and it works really well. Here his best friend is played by Anthony Mackie of The Hurt Locker. Mackie is an actor I really like, and while this isn’t necessarily a role that’s worthy of his talents, I’m glad to see him featured more prominently than he has been in most of his recent films. Elsewhere I’ve established that Dwayne Johnson is good in just about everything, and he particularly shines here. He’s playing a really sweet, nice guy who just happens to be a giant capable of seriously injuring someone. I get the sense that’s basically how he is in real life. These three are great together, and the audience likes them enough to let them get away with some pretty terrible things. I’ve said that this doesn’t get quite as dark as the true story, but it gets a lot darker than an audience might expect, based on the tone of the film.

What’s really exciting about Pain and Gain, though, is that it’s still a Michael Bay film through and through. Bay is one of the more universally despised directors (among critics, not audiences) but he is not a hack. He has a distinct vision, and he’s very good at executing it. In fact, I’d say he’s one of the most pure examples of an auteur director currently making movies. Many early reviews have noted that this is a change of pace for him, but it’s not like he went off and made The Shawshank Redemption: Pain and Gain still has all of his usual visual flourishes, some of which I love and some I hate. It still feels longer than it really need to be. It still has his weird, sometimes childish sense of humor. It still has a slightly leering, misogynist view of women. There are still moments of over-the-top violence. And it still has an explosion.

He’s back in Bad Boys territory, which is where I like him. The dirty, crime-ridden Miami of the ’90s is where his strengths come through the best. More importantly, this is the smallest budget he’s worked with since Bad Boys, which was his first film. He has an undeniable talent for crafting sequences around giant CGI creations that are not really there, but it’s great to see his low-angle, slow-motion camera circling real people again. Doing a “small movie” was good for him. | Sean Lass

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