Pain & Gain is a brash, puerile action-comedy of errors about a trio of muscle-obsessed idiots who set out to extort money from a sleazy Miami businessman by kidnapping and torturing him. Michael Bay, who directed it, is almost the right person for the job. Almost.
Based on real events that unfolded in 1994 and 1995, this version of the story, written by Captain America: The First Avenger scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, emphasizes the goons' crassness, clueless bravado, and misplaced -- almost endearing -- commitment to their stupid ideals. Those qualities are to be found in abundance in Bay's other films (which include Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and the Transformers trilogy). You could make a strong argument for those qualities being evident in Bay himself. If anybody understands what it's like to want to do something that's reckless, wrong, and irresponsible but potentially lucrative, it's the man who made Bad Boys II.
But Pain & Gain is also a satire: of something-for-nothing "American dream" greed, of hollow philosophies derived from self-improvement seminars, of selfishness-based consumerism, of brawn-over-brains mentality. Satiric intent is obvious in the way the ringleader has convinced himself that his own principles are American principles and therefore unassailable, and in the self-help guru's slogans: "Get off your lazy American ass!" and "All your friends are LOSERS." The whole thing has a tone of mockery about it.
The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is that Michael Bay is terrible at mocking things. Whatever other qualities he may have as a man and a filmmaker -- and Pain & Gain is often lively and entertaining -- his sense of humor is juvenile and half-formed. He is unacquainted with subtlety (usually required for good satire). He isn't funny. His movies aren't funny. He is bad at comedy. With Bay, the line between mocking reprehensible meatheads and simply being a reprehensible meathead is always awkwardly drawn. Here, it's nearly invisible.
"My name is Daniel Lugo, and I believe in fitness." Those are the first words spoken by our first narrator, a personal trainer played by Mark Wahlberg. (All of the key players narrate at some point. It's a smart choice for a story this bizarre and multifaceted, as it means we're never expected to believe that any one person knows what the others are thinking.) Daniel wants to be rich, and his heroes -- Scarface, the guys in The Godfather, etc. -- were "self-made." (While he's telling us this, we see men in the gym locker room injecting steroids.) Daniel knows that success requires hard work and dedication. There are no shortcuts to success! So his plan is to rob one of his gym clients, a tacky Jewish businessman named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). That isn't a shortcut, you see, because the plan is very complicated and will require finesse to execute.
To assist him, he recruits two fellow gym rats: Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), an impotent steroid-abuser with a thing for fat girls; and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a hulking ex-con and reformed alcoholic and junkie who found Jesus in prison. They have no intention of hurting Victor Kershaw. They'll abduct him, keep him blindfolded so he doesn't know their identities, force him to sign over his money and property, and be on their merry way. Of course, complications arise, people are injured, the scheme spirals out of control, and so forth.
Nearly every character is loathsome. Daniel, Adrian, and Paul are various combinations of mean, violent, sexist, narcissistic, petty, vain, and dishonest. Their victim is an arrogant, Trump-like loudmouth. The gym's owner (Rob Corddry) is sleazy; Daniel's stripper girlfriend (Bar Paly) is opportunistic; the self-help guru (Ken Jeong) is a hypocrite and a liar. Everybody's dumb. The only significant characters who aren't awful human beings are Adrian's nurse girlfriend (Rebel Wilson) and a detective (Ed Harris) who shows up halfway through the film.
Now, all of that is fine. Many excellent dark comedies have sprung from casts of characters as despicable as these. Usually, though, the enjoyment comes first from reveling in the badness of their deeds, and then in seeing them punished for them. When there's no punishment -- when they get away with it -- we seldom enjoy the story unless it's also really, really funny.
Pain & Gain is only fitfully humorous. Moreover, there's an uneasy disconnect between how detestable the characters are and how the movie treats them. On a 1-10 scale of awfulness, most of them are 9's and 10's. The problem is that the movie only thinks they're 7's. Several people in the film point out how unlikable Victor Kershaw is, which is true. But no one ever mentions that Daniel, Adrian, and Paul are pretty hard to like, too, once you get to know them.
When punishment and comeuppance are delivered, whether by the legal system or by the story's internal system of right and wrong, it's for the huge things like extortion and attempted murder. It's not for the everyday vileness like, for example, Paul nearly beating an old man to death for flirting with him. The movie doesn't suggest that sort of thing is OK, exactly -- but there are no consequences for it, either. The same goes for the central characters' mostly lousy treatment of women. Heck, for their lousy treatment of men, too. They get punished for breaking the law, but they suffer no repercussions for being heinous people.
There's a scene where Daniel is teaching a self-defense course to a group of upscale suburban families, and the chesty stripper is role-playing as the would-be victim. "Who wants to be the rapist?" Daniel asks. The men in the group -- in front of their wives and children -- then fight over who gets to be the rapist. (Yes, that's the word they use.) It's hard to believe Bay recognizes the wrongness of the guys' unpunished behavior when he doesn't recognize the wrongness of this. If THAT'S supposed to be funny and OK, why wouldn't the other stuff be funny and OK too?
Pain & Gain opens wide in theaters across North America on Friday, April 26.