Michael Bay detractors will have a field day with Pain and Gain, a true-crime black comedy which shamelessly wallows in fetishised displays of consumerism and the slow-mo flexing of sun-kissed abs. Positioned by Paramount as a debauched romp across the muscular beaches of Miami, it is apt to assume that Bay’s latest outing – and first film since 2005 not brought to you by Hasbro – is a masturbatory love-letter to testosterone fuelled dominance. But is it?
Mark Whalberg – plus 20 pounds of biceps and pecs – is Daniel Lugo, a blue collar personal trainer with lofty American Dreams but not a whiff of sense. After attending a seminar from Ken Jeong ‘s sickly parody of a motivational speaker (“Don’t be a don’t-er. Do be a do-er”) he decides to take what he feels he is owed from societies elite, and robs and kidnaps a rich, Jewish client.
Roping in fellow meatheads Anthonie Mackie and a brilliant Dwayne Johnson, the events play out like a sweatier version of Fargo with more gay jokes. Working from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen Mcfeely – last seen penning the lighter side of American patriotism in Captain America – Bay has a deft handle on the farce and the events proceed with pitch-black hilarity. The weak stomached may find it hard to swallow since, along with some very uncomfortable and rather sadistic violence, the light that Pain and Gain shines on the ugliest side of consumerist nature is nauseating, even more so than the comparable Spring Breakers.
We have seen Bay tackle a variety of genres with varying degrees of success, but this mean spirited satire feels like something of a fresh step, even if it comes packaged with many of his most irritating trademarks. Every shot is composed like a commercial and you can feel the golden Miami sunshine heating up the screen. On many occasions we see the three leads walking in slow motion – in one instance with an explosion erupting in the background – and no conversation is complete without the disorientating swirling of a disembodied camera. The material is suited to his style and sentiment as that itself is part of the joke. The decadence, consumerism and violence in which the characters indulge is exaggerated to cartoonish extremes, giving the events the surreal, disorientating qualities of a dream.
And now comes the inevitable “however”. If for a single moment Bay is being sincere in celebrating the misguided masculinity and Americanism on display, then this is a heavily problematic film. Similarly to Spring Breakers, it is likely that this will attract crowds who want to enjoy the anti-heroism of its characters, and there is danger of its message being lost amidst a sea of stylish violence and bigoted humour. Johnson’s religious character may be the saving grace in this instance, and his moral quandary is the most pronounced, but even he says lines like “Jesus Christ has blessed me with many gifts: one of them is knocking someone the fuck out!” which will have fans whooping. Ed Harris’ gumshoe closes the film with a monologue which recalls Fargo and No Country for Old Men, but it perhaps feels like a tacked-on excuse for what has preceded. Where you rest on the moral ambiguities will depend on what you feel the film is saying about violence and about the world. It is a true story after all.