Jim Reed reviews Pain & Gain and finds more pain than gain

Pain & Gain

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Directed by Michael Bay

Review by Jim Reed

Pain & Gain is a film of tremendous excess, but almost nothing to show for it [or, but very little soul]. Michael Bay (TransformersThe RockArmageddonBad BoysPearl Harbor, etc.) is a maker of nice looking films. They are almost always big, outrageous, and perhaps even entertaining despite themselves, and this film has some of those elements we’ve come to expect from Bay’s work. But it also has other things we’ve come to expect from Bay’s work—namely, a film with promise ultimately usurped by lack of attention to story and character development. 

Pain & Gain tells the true story of three body-builders (played by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie) who kidnap and rob a wealthy deli owner (Tony Shalhoub) so they can have their piece of American excess. Their lives then spin horribly out of control. The film wants to simultaneously celebrate and criticize the American Dream. They seemingly want to celebrate the belief that the American Dream is in itself good, but criticize these three morons for taking it too far. 

The film goes out of its way to make sure we know these guys are morons, and they want to give everyone a say in the events that transpire, which means there were way too many voices here. Give the audience one, maybe two main characters and speak through them. Every major character addressed the audience in voice-overs throughout the film, as though we are hearing their inner-thoughts, or perhaps case testimony. Ed Harris’ character is not introduced until about halfway thru the film, which for someone with such a significant role in the conclusion of the story is difficult to fathom. I understand that the story did not necessitate his arrival until the midway point of the film, but he is the last decent human being standing in the end (no real spoiler there), and the filmmakers clearly want to set him up as the moral authority.

In a lot of ways (and I feel odd saying this) it felt like Bay was trying to make a Coen Brothers film, but in all the wrong ways. They had clear disdain for their characters, constantly making a mockery of them, even at one point reminding us with an all caps insert reading “THIS IS STILL A TRUE STORY”. The Coen Brothers are sometimes accused of having disdain for their characters, and are well known for their morally repugnant actions as in, for example, the “Wood Chipper” scene in Fargo. Like Fargo, this story is heavy, but unlike Fargo the makers of Pain & Gain never give us an opportunity to reflect on the gravity of the situation, or the people involved. The Ed Harris character could have been that character who comes in and not only gives the insanity some stability and perspective, but also advances the overall narrative in interesting ways. Ed Harris is an exceptional actor, but this film did not provide him an opportunity to explore the depths of an interesting character, because the character wasn’t all that interesting. 

My other issue with the film is that while it connects images well, the content of those images do not adequately create a coherent whole. Any good film sequences scenes and shots to what the viewer subconsciously wants to see happen next; great films surprise viewers with what they didn’t even know they wanted to see next, and makes it all connect in a holistic way. This film has a decent visceral approach, but the eye candy is just eye candy, and there does not seem to be a whole lot of life behind those eyes. The film is all about three ‘losers’ who want to be ‘doers’ in life; who want to achieve the American Dream. But the film never aspires to anything higher than derision. A story like this ought to elicit some reflection, and to conclude the picture by essentially telling the audience what we ought to think of the characters gives us no space to think for ourselves. Mockery is easy, human engagement is tough; I wish they had tried for a modicum of human engagement.