Bodybuilders worry me. I knew a high school classmate who competed in a bodybuilding contest and spent weeks refining his diet to a razor’s edge powdered with protein. He went on stage in Speedos, his body lathered in oil — the whole shebang — and just the thought of him flexing his pecs to make them dance throws my mind into a twilight zone of dweeby discomfort.
The feeling resurfaced while I was watching “Pain & Gain.” I slid back into my suspicion that bodybuilding goes beyond the reasonable belief in staying healthy and teeters on the brink of pathology. In the case of the three hunks of muscle played by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie, it plunges off the edge, past pathology and into self-worship, narcissism, anger, boredom, blind ambition and a hollowness you can find only in America, between the right to bear arms and morbid obesity.
But let’s not pin all the blame on bodybuilding. These characters also happen to be “dumb, stupid f—s,” in the film’s own words, and they’re just three of the many nuts pumping iron in Michael Bay’s glitzy amusement park version of Miami. It’s hard to tolerate stupidity from anyone, in real life or at the movies, but when it’s done so irresistibly, and when the movie is as nuts as its characters, well…
“Pain & Gain” is based on a real story, a fact it makes sure to remind us of during its most cartoonish moments. Three bodybuilders team up to kidnap, torture and steal a fortune from a con man who attends their gym. They have rent to pay and penis operations to fund and thousands of dollars would certainly help, but above all it’s a symbolic robbery, a testament to the American Dream…which of course means the robbery will glisten and gleam in theory, but in action the big lugs will end up with a lot more on their plate than broccoli and tuna.
Michael Bay has an odd relationship to this story. On one hand, his films have built a reputation for servicing the frat-boy “I am the world” mentality with a machine-gun onslaught of explosions, robots and Victoria’s Secret models. All of these things can be found in “Pain & Gain.” On the other hand, “Pain & Gain” is a brutal satire of that very mentality. It depicts glam models reenacting “Ocean’s Eleven” only to laugh at the idea that real life can bend to fit this image. Life is a lot more like a Coen Brothers film, “Fargo” or “Burn After Reading.” One goof leads to another and another and soon someone has to buy a chainsaw from Home Depot to saw off a porn king’s limbs — and they bought the cheap Chinese-knock off model that breaks after five seconds of use, not the gas-powered manly man’s saw.
Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” attempted that same balancing act last month, and it never figured out how to stay standing. Its love for eye candy overrode any attempts to convey a valuable message. “Pain & Gain” beats its message over the audience’s head until they’re a bloody pulp, so there’s no way you can’t not get it. Mark Wahlberg compares fitness to the “scrawny” colonies fighting the British government and becoming the “buffest” nation in the world. Ken Jeong, as motivational speaker Jonny Wu, tells his audience, “Every person in America is a do-er or a don’t-er … Don’t be a don’t-er. Do be a do-er,” and that’s as subtle as the writing gets.
But it’s this unsubtly that is the film’s greatest asset. The screen ripples and its characters seem to shimmer, flooding across the frame’s corners. The screenplay delights in stretching beyond our expectations into territory never hinted at in the simple premise promised by the trailers. “Pain & Gain” is bloated, wild, excessive, expertly written, extravagantly staged and after making you laugh in spite of yourself for the first few minutes, the film just starts making you laugh. The effect is indelible. You don’t forget something so confidently audacious.
Michael Bay is serviced by the strongest storytelling of his career, the work of go-to Marvel movie writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and while his directing style remains as chaotic as ever, it makes no apologies and embraces every inch of its absurdity. You’ll get the full cinematic regiment, between slow-mo, freeze-frame, fish eye, saturated color palette, cheeky captions, multiple-perspective “Goodfellas”-copy voice over and a Hitchcock tracking camera maneuver thrown in just for laughs, enough to leave you tired afterward but feeling a pleasant buzz.
And my God, the difference it makes when you cast actual comedic talents instead of walking mannequins in your film! Rob Corddry, fresh off “Warm Bodies,” and “Perfect Pitch” alum Rebel Wilson round out the supporting cast and let us breathe, wheeze than laugh between the riotous wall-breaker scenes centered on the main three dunderheads, along with “Monk’s” Tony Shalhoub as the blowhard Victor Kershaw, who the bodybuilders have set their money-grubbing eyes on. I will only add that Dwayne Johnson has finally earned his clumsy leap from wrestling into acting, and if you told me three years ago that The Rock would play a 300-pound cokehead-turned-Jesus nut and the sweetest, most earnest character in any recent action film, I’d crack that’d be the day Michael Bay made a masterpiece. Well, look what we have here. Clearly, then, there’s some genius to be had tucked away inside our biceps.