“Big” and “loud” are two adjectives that have become synonymous with Michael Bay productions over the years, but usually they refer to cars, shootouts, and alien robots, not actual human characters, as in “Pain & Gain,” the filmmaker’s lowest budgeted film by several fold since his 1995 debut “Bad Boys.” Despite the smaller pool of funding (a mere $26 million, with Bay and star Mark Wahlberg working for scale) and the movie’s more intimate focus, however, everything about “Pain & Gain” feels super-sized, from the bodybuilder characters’ hulking physiques—perhaps Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is an alien robot after all—to the volume at which they speak. Not to mention, the film houses what are undoubtedly the biggest dildos you’ve ever seen unless you’re a real-life Michael Fassbender from “Shame.” Bay might not have much CGI at his disposal this time, but he’s determined as ever to assault the viewer’s senses.
What makes “Pain & Gain” more interesting than the usual Bay affair—at least while it unfolds, if not necessarily afterwards—is Bay’s suggestion that his usual stylistic overkill, from the ultra-vivid color-timing to the abundant 360-degree pans, is here servicing legitimate substance rather than hollow spectacle. The overarching theme in “Pain & Gain,” based on the true story of Miami bodybuilders who kidnapped and tried to murder a millionaire in order to steal his fortune, is the perversion of the American Dream (an oft-repeated buzz-phrase) to mean greed and excess instead of hard work and upward mobility. And indeed, Bay and cinematographer Ben Seresin’s immoderate aesthetic embodies this undercurrent, bombarding the viewer with flash in order to demonstrate that there comes a point in anything—be it one’s pursuit of wealth or the style of a film—when enough is enough. Coming from Bay, who’s never shown any regard for that point, this acknowledgement comes across a minor miracle, even though he’s leveraged it into yet another exploitative work.
But the big problem with “Pain & Gain” is, once the sugar rush of the experience wears off—which is to say, the “Oh my God, I can’t believe something this visually outlandish and narratively vulgar was committed to film!” factor—you realize that Bay has little more to say than that, yes, there comes a point in anything when enough is enough. And what a “duh” piece of social commentary: no shit it’s awful that a group of men would think stealing and murdering was a valid way to attain a luxurious lifestyle. Further, Bay does zero to convince the audience that such a criminal mindset is a widespread issue in America despite his evocation of the American Dream through glib cultural references, like a sleazy, Tony Robbins-esque motivational speaker (Ken Jeong) whose “Be a doer!” affirmations get twisted into felonious intentions inside the mind of Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo.
Thus, “Pain & Gain” is ultimately a poseur of a social problem film. In actuality, it’s just a more-psychotic-than-usual popcorn flick tailored to twentysomething males’ macho sensibilities, despite Bay’s projection of self-awareness and illusion of cultural relevance. Sure, the movie is entertaining for much of its overlong runtime (Bay is incapable of keeping a film under two hours), not just due to its stylistic insanity but also its cornucopia of utterly reprehensible, unredeemable characters, from Wahlberg’s megalomaniac gym-rat to Anthony Mackie’s impotent steroid-junkie to Tony Shalhoub’s prick deli-owner, perhaps the least sympathetic kidnapping victim to ever grace the silver-screen. And Johnson’s sidekick, a cocaine junkie who gets clean in prison and turns to Jesus, only to be solicited by a gay priest and then run back to criminality, is so far beyond bad taste, he must be seen to be believed. But one gets so little out of “Pain & Gain” beyond shits and giggles that it’s simply impossible to recommend in any serious capacity.