Compared to what king of Hollywood big-budget bombast Michael Bay usually does, Pain & Gain could almost be described as a chamber piece. Of course, it's nothing of the sort, but the fact remains that this smaller-scale black crime comedy, based on a real story, is a somewhat unusual choice for a director better known as a kinetic purveyor of mindless big-screen eye-candy. Which, in a weird, twisted way, is exactly why Mr. Bay is a match made in heaven for a story that hinges on the desire to achieve the perfect facade of wealth, to attain the "good life" without having necessarily earned it but looking as if you did. It's all about appearances.

     In that sense, Pain & Gain, adapted by The Life and Death of Peter Sellers screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely from a series of 1999 articles by Miami reporter Pete Collins, is pretty much a film of our time. It fits in perfectly with Sofia Coppola and Harmony Korine's looks at the shallowness and fickleness of modern pop culture respectively in The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers, while rubbing elbows with the Coen brothers' sly, wry explorations of stupidity such as Burn After Reading. In fact, that film's Brad Pitt - a personal trainer as well - is a close cousin of Daniel Lugo, the "ringleader" and main instigator of the "gang" at the heart of Pain & Gain, known as the Sun Gym Gang, and soulfully portrayed by a solid Mark Wahlberg. 

     Daniel is a small-time con artist reinvented as a personal trainer at a Miami gym, whose sense of entitlement to the American Dream he has never reached leads to recruit two colleagues to set up a "perfect" crime: kidnap a wealthy client, have him transfer all his money and property to them and dispose of him. Needless to say, things don't quite work out like that: the co-conspirators, a born-again ex-addict ex-con (a spot-on Dwayne Johnson) and a sex-obsessed bodybuilder rendered impotent by his use of steroids (Anthony Mackie) are even more useless than Daniel is when it comes to crime, and the victim himself is an insufferably obnoxious, utterly dislikeable cretin (a scene-stealing Tony Shalhoub) who not only survives the ordeal but swears revenge, despite no one truly believing him. 

     What follows is a black comedy that is outrageously candy-coloured to the point of nausea, where laughter pretty much dies in the throat as the idiocy of all involved snowballs into a perfect storm of happenstance incompetence and brain-addled amorality. The central trio of actors manage to infuse an almost tender naïveté in these supposed tough guys whose intelligence is inversely proportional to their muscle mass, while around them Mr. Bay breezes through the film with his usual barrage of visual tricks (slow motion, roving cameras, bombastic soundtrack) while occasionally losing sight of his narrative (the two-hour plus running time is not a plus). But his glossy, sun-kissed handling fits like a glove the gaucheness of folks striving for an American Dream they can never hope to reach and settle for the outward signs of financial success, and lends the film an outlandish, offhand quality that marks it as a more intriguing, interesting film than it may seem at first.

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Rob Corddry, Ken Jeong, Michael Rispoli, Rebel Wilson, Ed Harris
Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, from the Miami New Times articles by Pete Collins
Cinematography: Ben Seresin  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Steve Jablonsky
Designer: Jeffrey Beecroft
Costumes: Deborah L. Scott
Editors: Thomas A. Muldoon, Joel Negron
Producers: Donald de Line, Mr. Bay, Ian Bryce (Paramount Pictures, De Line Pictures)
USA, 2013, 129 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, August 14th 2013


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