Entitlement is a central facet of the American Dream. If you work hard, you should be rewarded. We believe we live in a meritocracy despite all evidence to the contrary. In some walks of life, you can get out what you put in. It’s a truth in exercise, and it’s mostly been a truth for the films of Michael Bay. He is a director completely without subtlety and grace, and is one of the most financially successful directors in American history. His films are cinematic excess in their purest form; indifferent to story and character, they have disgustingly large budgets pumped in and grandiose spectacle pumped out. His new film, Pain & Gain, may not have the funds of his recent blockbusters, but it wholeheartedly shares the cocky and reckless spirit of his controversial oeuvre. Sympathetic to his meathead protagonists, Bay has crafted a picture that is energetic, fun, and almost too large for life.
Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a personal trainer who feels like he’s not getting what he’s owed from the American Dream. Fueled by the empty ravings of a hackneyed motivational speaker, Daniel sees himself as a “Doer” who believes that the American Dream isn’t paying out to him, but it rewards a jerk like his client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub). Because Kershaw undermines the joy and generosity the American Dream is supposed to provide, Daniel feels no regret in bringing in fellow bodybuilders Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) to kidnap and torture Kershaw into giving them all of his assets. Of course, there’s the another caveat to the Dream: You can never have enough.
You know Pain & Gain is about the American Dream because Bay drapes his movie in American flags and has characters come right out and talk about the concept. Michael Bay has never been known for subtlety, and is probably incapable of it. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is his worst film, but The Island presents his most glaring weakness: he only has one level and that level is to be the most over-the-top mainstream filmmaker working today. That approach is completely at odds with the sci-fi premise of his 2005 picture.
In Pain & Gain, he has found much better material even though the picture doesn’t contain the onslaught of visual effects his movies have come to require. Everything is on the surface, and Bay wants to smother the surface with as much as possible. Every leading character gets to do voice over, there’s no hesitance to remind the audience that the events are based on a true story, and the electric, neon-saturated color palette screams off the screen. It’s a movie about big dreams, big guys, big tits, big money, and Bay, as always, is unapologetic. We can laugh about the incredible stupidity of his leading criminals, but that kind of gleeful stupidity has brought the director mind-boggling riches.
The repugnance some audiences feel towards Bay is that his films are abrasively unapologetic in their idiocy. Their budgets are so high, and yet the expectations of their stories are so low. Pain & Gain flips the script by having Bay note that—for all his faults—he has always remained true to himself. He understands that for his kind of filmmaking, there’s no room for pretension, and that kind of false sense of self is the downfall of his characters. They’re nowhere near as smart as they think they are. In this bizarre, twisted way, Pain & Gain makes a reverse anti-intellectual statement rebuffing the directors’ critics. He’s not against people who like smart films, but his movies are the beating, triple-bypass-ready heart of blockbuster cinema, and he knows they’re dumb. But if you can be the biggest and the most fun, then the rewards will come.
Daniel, Doyle, and Adrian are his proof. The acts of the individuals are horrific and repugnant. They’re greedy, entitled, self-deluded, and violent. We shouldn’t want to be around them, and should be clamoring for their swift, painful downfall. Instead, the three charming leads play perfectly into the goofy, bombastic world Bay has created. More importantly, we know that Kershaw is an ass-hole, and placed against his captors, we see it’s more important to be charming than good. The same could be said of Michael Bay’s movies.
There are many who don’t find Bay’s movies charming, and it’s completely understandable. But I like the all-out goofiness Bay pursues, especially in this film where he is less reliant on set pieces and special effects. The giant robots have been replaced with a giant title card explaining about the various side effects of cocaine. And when in doubt, the film always retreats to the dependable and jovial ineptitude of its main characters. Of course, a man who lives in excess will always find a way to sickening gluttony. It’s almost appropriate that the film runs too long, and sadly there are moments where Bay indulges his more tasteless comic sensibilities (such as a run-in with a homosexual priest), but Pain & Gain shows as much maturity and self-discipline as we can probably ever expect from Michael Bay.
He is a director who has based his career on amount: the amount of explosions, the amount of one-liners, the amount of special effects, etc. In a society that always demands more, he is the perfect director in giving people what they want. If a Michael Bay movie can be heartfelt, then Pain & Gain is an oddly earnest personal statement about being guilty as charged for simply playing into a pre-existing entitlement. It is a loud, obvious, childish, turgid, and grandiose statement wrapped in an insane farce, but it’s somehow endearing nonetheless.