Pain and Gain, the action-black comedy hybrid about a team of Miami bodybuilders on a violent crime spree that’s baed on a true early 1990s case that opens this weekend, is an impressive chronicle of the persuasive power of American dumbness. That it’s directed by Michael Bay, a man who’s amassed a considerable fortune by purveying the kind of dumbness at which he now takes cockeyed aim does nothing to diminish the considerable, sick charms of the movie. In between the movie’s engagement with male body image and entitlement, its portrayal of the way the American dream can deform like candle wax, crackerjack performances by Mark Wahlberg, Dwanye Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shaloub, and Rebel Wilson, and the rather provocative question of Bay’s level of self-awareness, Pain and Gain may be the smartest dumb movie of the summer.
The story follows three Miami-based bodybuilders, Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), who work together as trainers at Sun Gym, and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), an ex-convict who’s chosen Miami, of all places, to try to maintain his sobriety. They turn to crime when Lugo, who’s obsessed with the results of self-improvement if not precisely conversant with the means of achieving it legitimately—he served time on an investment scam—decides that one of his clients, a businessman named Victor Kershaw (Shaloub) , is living the life that ought to be Lugo’s own. “I didn’t hate him. I just thought it would be cool to see France,” Danny explains to us initially. But his resentments harden into a kind of entitlement, one based in part on the disparity between the amount of time he spends working on his body and the time Kershaw devotes to his own physique. “We’re supermen,” Danny tells Adrian. “Don’t you think we deserve better? Because I do.” After recruiting Paul to their cause, the three men kidnap Victor, lock him up in his own sex toy distributorship, and proceed to torture him until he signs their assets over to them. But while the movie’s plot is a crime story, its themes are self-delusion, incredulity, and their related consequences.
Everyone in Pain and Gain is obsessed with the movies, and one of the film’s running jokes is the way people take the wrong lessons away from their favorite movies. “Michael Corleone didn’t become the Godfather by following rules,” Daniel insists, missing the point that Daniel’s transformation into the Godfather is a tragedy that upsets generations of planning, rather than his actual goal. “He did it by keeping a gun behind the toilet and knowing what he wanted.” “I knew the only place a woman like me could be appreciated in the United States,” says Sorina (Bar Paly), a stripper at the club where the gang likes to hang out. “I saw Pretty Woman.” But her assessment of that movie is that Julia Roberts got a shopping trip by showing Richard Gere her vagina, rather than that she got her way out of poverty and sex work by being appealing and emotionally open. Sorina gets her shopping spree, in part because she doesn’t know to want anything else. And they collapse the distinction between the movies and reality on a regular basis. When Danny wants to reassure Paul that his ideas for kidnapping and extortion are viable, he tells the more naive man “I watched a lotta movies, Paul. I know what I’m doing.” Pain and Gain, to be clear, serves up many of the same vulgar pleasures that have lead its characters astray, from gorgeous, unclothed women, to the sick joke of a small dog chomping down on a dismembered toe, but in a movie that’s partially about about the power of such provocations, it’s hard to accuse Bay of hypocrisy—he’s telling us what works, and challenging us to distance ourselves from our enjoyments.
And movies aren’t the only source of misguided thinking for Pain and Gain‘s characters. Daniel is inspired in his latest criminal endeavors after attending a self-improvement seminar run by a man named Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), who claims to have left his wife for a harem of seven girlfriends, and who preaches a gospel of “Get a goal. Get a plan. And get up off your ass,” and reappropriates Alcoholics Anonymous slogans. Wu is a transparent, silly huckster, but in the beginning, Daniel treats him like a quasi-religious figure. Paul’s self-deception is driven by faith and need. “Daniel was really encouraging about my self-improvement. And I needed a friend,” he says of his decision to fall in with the bodybuilders. And he works backwards to align his prison Christianity with his skills, insisting that “Jesus Christ himself has blessed me with many gifts. One of them is knocking people the fuck out.”
Daniel sells Sorina on a ludicrous story when she begins to suspect that he’s a criminal, telling her “I’ve been at HQ in Langley, Virginia. I haven’t been truthful with you, and it hurts…Those goggles are government issue. And I guess in a way, so am I.” It’s transparently dumb, but it speaks to the image of America Sorina learned in the movies, and to her desire to be connected to an important man. Similarly, when the bodybuilders go to buy weapons for their crime spree, Paul talks a gun shop owner into selling them the arms without a background check by telling them that he and his friends are retired law enforcement officers and “We’re doing security for a band named Stryper.” He’s noticed that the man had a bumper sticker for the (real) metal group in the store, and cleverly hits on the dealer’s desire both to have his tastes affirmed by someone else—”And people say Christian rock sucks!” he tells Paul, excitedly—and to have contact with someone who has contact with someone famous. And later, a realtor who sells Adrian a house tells Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) a private investigator hired by Victor, that she didn’t think to check about why a man with a low-wage job was paying for a home in cash because “I thought maybe he was in sports. Rap. I mean, he is black.” She wants to believe anything that will help her make a sale—and that accords with her racial attitudes.
The movie also explores why a charismatic hack like Daniel might be able to deceive people, from Sorina and Paul, to Victor’s neighbors after he moves into the house he’s forced Victor to sign over him, while Victor, who is telling the absolute truth, finds himself an object of suspicion after the bodybuilders leave him for dead and he finds himself a free man again. Part of it is that his story does sound deeply insane. “I was tasered by ninjas!” he tells two investigators from the Miami Police Department while he recovers in the hospital. “They poured chocolate liquor down my throat!” “The evil bodybuilder ninjas dd this?” the cops ask him, before refusing to investigate the case further. When Ed starts investigating on Victor’s behalf, he’s surprised by how willing people around him were to accept the man’s disappearance. “You weren’t surprised when Mr. Kershaw didn’t say goodbye?” Ed asks. “He was a dick,” the man shrugs. Even Ed is ultimately forced to admit that “You are a very difficult victim, Victor.”
And it’s striking how Daniel reacts when his self-delusions—not just that, as he puts it at the beginning of the movie that “I’m hot. I’m big,” but that he deserves outrageous prosperity—are challenged by the people who become his victims. “You’re broke, you dumb shit, because you never went to college, thereby ensuring that you’ll spend the rest of your life obsessing over pectoral muscles,” Victor snaps at Daniel after the latter’s kidnapped the former. When Daniel tries to scam another man, a porn king named Frank Griga (Michael Rispoli), he’s insulted when the man, to whom he’s trying to sell shares in a real telecom business to which he has no relation, tells Daniel “I want to meet directly with the board. No offense, Daniel, but your skill set doesn’t set my mind at ease.” “No one calls me an amateur!” Danny yells at him, later telling his coconspirators, almost hysterically, “He called me a fucking amateur!”
So what is the American dream in the world of Pain and Gain? For Daniel, it’s an undefined sense of bigness, a country that grew from “Just a few scrawny colonies. Now we’re the most buffed-up country on the planet. It’s rad.” For Sorina, it’s a place that she can become important by attaching herself to it. “This is my adopted country,” she tells Daniel dramatically. “I will die for it.” “Why are you helping me?” Victor asks Ed at some point, given his inability to pay the private investigator. “What they did to you is un-America,” Ed tells him, though whether he means that the bodybuilders shouldn’t be able to get away with crime, or that you shouldn’t be able to steal the wealth someone else has accumulated legally. If the latter, it’s a bit ironic, given that the real-life victim in the Pain and Gain case went to jail for a major fraud of his own. At the end of the movie, Daniel reflects that initially, he wanted “not more. Just not the less I was used to…Maybe it got to be so I didn’t want to be equal anymore. Maybe I wanted to be more than…And that’s a recipe for injury.”
Pain and Gain doesn’t have anything to say about the gap between more and less, or between capability and achievement, or about the very un-American inability to rebuild your life after you do an initial prison term. But Daniel and the movie do get one thing right: there’s a lot of capacity for damage in the lies we tell and the nonsense we believe to avoid grappling with those bigger questions.