Sunday, April 28, 2013

Pain & Gain

PAIN & GAIN: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, directed by Michael Bay (129 min).

Pain & Gain is an incredible true story about some incredibly inept people, a story so twisted and bizarre and unbelievable it had to be told in Hollywood. I just wish it had a more competent director than the one it was saddled with. It’s hard to keep telling yourself as the events unfold this actually happened; even the film itself stops down near the end of the second act to remind us that, yes, this all happened. So in that way, the plot is fascinating and the events hold a certain weight given they were all true. But when these true (and truly disturbing) things begin to happen, I simply wish they weren't undercut by that ill-timed humor and relentless bad taste only Michael Bay can deliver.

The three central performances are inspired and energetic. Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a muscle-bound personal trainer in Miami who’s desire to sculpt his body is only superseded by his thirst for a better life. His personal training techniques has boosted the membership of his gym and made the owner, John (Rob Corddry), a wealthy man. Lugo has seen none of the money in his paycheck. So one day, when Victor Kershaw rolls into the gym and begins talking big about his money and mansions and boats and women, a light goes on over Lugo’s head. Albeit a dim and flickering light over an empty head.

Kershaw, played with oily verve by Tony Shaloub, is a scoundrel and a jerk in just about every way, berating Hispanic gardeners at his house, treating women poorly, you know the drill. Lugo wants to clean him out, to take all of his money and his home and his cars and leave him with nothing. Never mind that his plan from the beginning is hardly a functioning idea let alone the workings of a criminal mastermind. He brings in his friend and workout partner, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), who blindly goes along with Daniel’s idiotic scheme because, you see, he doesn't think it’s idiotic at all. He thinks it’s brilliant because his muscles have sucked away his brain power as well. The duo decide they need a third for some reason; enter Paul Doyle, played by Dwayne Johnson as a coke-snorting born again ex-con who is sensitive on the inside but built like a mountain on the outside. He also might be the dumbest of the trio, and that is saying something.

The plan involves kidnapping Kershaw and torturing him into signing over everything in his name. Never mind that they might need paperwork notarized, they don’t even know what a notary is. While Daniel and Adrian try and figure out how to get the cash, it is up to Paul to watch Kershaw in an abandoned sex-toy warehouse. I haven’t read anything about the actual kidnapping winding up in a sex-toy warehouse, just a warehouse, so who’s to say if it was one or not. I am willing to bet it wasn't a sex-toy warehouse, this was just Bay’s attempt at humor and his way to make sure his typical homophobic line of comedy makes its way into the film.

Which gets me to my real issues with Pain & Gain. The story is wildly fascinating and (mostly) true, and the performances from the three leads are top notch. Ed Harris, who appears later in the film as a private detective, adds a certain level of legitimacy to the proceedings. Wahlberg is especially engaged and dedicated to his part, all wide eyed and incredulous as the story gets increasingly out of hand. But Daniel Lugo is the craziest, dumbest member of the group; he is a sociopath and his actions are played for humor even as he is chopping up bodies or willingly murdering and stealing without so much as a second thought. I was reminded of Very Bad Things, the gruesome dark “comedy” from the mid nineties, and that’s not exactly what I wanted to think about.

Bay’s signatures are all over Pain & Gain, and these are all the problems with the film. It isn’t the true story that makes up the plot or the performances, which are all solid in their own way. It is in the homophobia, in the objectification of women, the poor sense of humor, all of which have ruined just about every one of Bay’s films. Maybe this could have been something beyond what it is, something dark but with humor placed correctly and tastefully. As it is now, the mixture is uncomfortable, and it makes the film choppy and disjointed and the tone of the picture uneven as we bounce from discomfort to laughter that doesn't quite feel right. Give me the truths of the story, save the Bay nonsense.