Review: Uneven ‘Pain & Gain’ gives Dwayne Johnson a career-best role

04.23.13 5 years ago 20 Comments

Paramount Pictures

Michael Bay is one of the few overtly, blatantly, unapologetically amoral filmmakers working in mainstream Hollywood.

I think a lot of what passes as moral material in mainstream cinema is phony, grafted on without sincerity. When someone learns something about themselves in a movie, more often than not, it’s complete bullshit. I have always preferred films that challenge me to have my own reaction to something, that trust me to navigate my own way through a work. I don’t mind the big broad strokes of filmmakers working in archetype. I’m all for great bad guys and perfect good guys, as long as it’s done well, but I’m equally okay with just watching sociopathic dummies screw up terrible plans.

Good thing, too, because “Pain and Gain” fits that bill exactly. Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely deserve credit for writing what feels like a tailor-made Michael Bay movie. Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a guy who is the perfect customer for the self-help market. He wants to be a success. He wants to be famous. He wants to be a big man in his community. He wants every bit of the American Dream, and he doesn’t want to work for it. He expects it. He believes he has a right to it.

And why not? Daniel isn’t the only overreaching dumbbell in the film. His good friend Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) has the same empty dreams as Daniel, and the two of them sort of feed off of each other’s pronounced yearning. Working at a gym in Miami, Daniel sees the life he wants to lead, all day long, inches in front of his face. He sees it, he can taste and touch it, and he can even imagine himself in it, but he can’t break through.

It is fascinating to see that the film casts Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub) as one of the biggest pieces of garbage in the film. He’s gross from the moment we meet him, bragging about his money, rubbing his life in Daniel’s face every chance he gets. Daniel gets the idea to kidnap Kershaw, force him to sign over all of his assets, and then set him free without him ever knowing who did it to him. It’s a terrible plan. It is flawed from the very start, and only completely ridiculous people would ever try to actually execute the plan. Adrian and Daniel recruit a third partner, Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), and they put the plan into action, and from the moment they start, it goes almost completely wrong.

There is a certain tone of comedy that Bay plays in his films that drives some people insane. There is plenty of that here in this film. Ken Jeong shows up as Johnny Wu, for example, a character based on a real-life infomercial guru that used to run his spots around the clock in Florida. There’s some effort spent on letting Rob Corddry riff or playing out the flirting between Rebel Wilson’s Ramona and Adrian, and how much you enjoy any of that depends on how funny you think Bay’s exaggerated and even grotesque sense of character plays out.

There is also an ugliness to the world that feels like an intentional choice. Bay’s Miami is a steroid-drenched house of mirrors, reflecting back the worst of us in the various characters. Wahlberg plays this kind of good-natured idiot better than anyone, and he is unflappable here as he pulls off this impossible scheme. Mackie feeds well off of Wahlberg’s energy, and I hope the two of them end up playing another comedy together. For me, though, there’s one performance here that is an all-timer, a wildly inspired bit of casting paying off in a rich and lunatic character, fully realized.

I remember hearing from a friend who was watching dailies for “The Scorpion King” as they came in that The Rock was something special, a natural-born movie star who could actually act. I have no idea how he could have known that from that film, but as it turns out, he’s right. Johnson does his best work yet here as a coke-addicted Jesus freak with a hair-trigger temper. When he’s tweaked out and itching for more coke, it’s terrifying because he looks like a bull about to rampage. He’s gigantic here, like too much sausage stuffed into a casing, and the best detail of his performance is the genuine innocence that shines through sometimes. Paul Doyle may be willing to do bad, bad things to help his new friends, but he’s pretty far from being a bad guy, and that may simply be by virtue of how Johnson plays him.

Ed Harris shows up a little over halfway into the movie as Ed Du Bois, a retired op/private detective who is the only person who believes Kershaw’s insane story, and he lends a nice gravitas to the picture. The film was adapted from a series of articles by Pete Collins that appeared in a Florida paper, and the outrageous nature of the story seems impossible, so Markus and McFeely underline a few times that this really is the true story. By sticking so true to fact, the film ends up feeling unbalanced, too long and eventually wearing the audience out. I get it, though. Bay enjoys himself loudly in every moment of the movie, and a number of the sequences here are among his best on any scale.

And when I call Bay “amoral,” that is not a bad thing. I would prefer watching a film that did not feed me a fake moral or a lesson, and Bay knows there’s nothing of real substance that you’re going to take from the experience of the movie. The closest thing there is to a true moral here is “If you decide to kidnap someone, torture them, steal everything they own and then practically kill him… get it right.” It is loud and brutal and sometimes quite stupid, and it is wildly funny even in its darkest moments, and by my calculations, that makes this a genuine, no apologies surprise from Bay.

“Pain and Gain” opens everywhere on Friday.

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