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.