Is it possible to combine reprehensible characters, depraved violence and humor into a single coherent whole? The answer, oddly, is Yes. We’ve seen it done well on numerous occasions. The master class in setting this kind of tone is Goodfellas, a film that successfully takes a compelling cast of criminals, mixes in moments of shockingly brutal violence and yet manages to produce an often hilarious streak of dark humor. With a somewhat lighter approach, Elmore Leonard has been writing novels for years that marry violence with humor. We’ve seen the results on the big screen with Get Shorty and Out of Sight, and most recently, on the small screen, in FX’s Justified.
I can only imagine that Pain & Gain aspired to falling somewhere on this Goodfellas to Justified continuum as a crime film with a scathing sense of humor. But, it’s ultimately impossible to determine what tone the screenwriters and director were going for because the resulting film is such a schizophrenic hodgepodge mish-mash of images and characters that the movie never develops a coherent feel. One moment the central characters are engaged in broad, silly comedy and are as collectively stupid as the punchlines of every Dumb Blonde joke ever told, and the next minute they are beating on people with ball peen hammers and disposing of dead bodies with chainsaws and garbage bags.
The initial premise is simple. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a personal trainer at a gym in Miami who believes that he is destined for greatness. He attends self-help seminars where he chants with his fellow attendees that he is a “do-er”, not a “don’t-er”. When he helps a struggling local gym triple its membership in ninety days, his employer reaps all the financial benefits, and Daniel gets an Employee-of-the-Month plaque.
So, Daniel decides that he is going to “get his” by swindling and cheating his way to the American Dream. He’s a Republican’s worst nightmare – the ultimate entitlement program, a bulked up criminal who thinks that he deserves what you have worked so hard for, and he’s simply going to take it from you. He enlists a fellow personal trainer, Adrian Dorbal (Anthony Mackie) and recruits the services of a Christian ex-con named Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to form a veritable Three Stooges of crime. Sounds like a slapstick comedy, right? Only if you find setting people on fire and bludgeoning helpless victims to death with free weights to be your idea of hilarity.
The trio of wannabe bigshots finds its perfect mark in Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a scumbag who makes the mistake of bragging about his houses, boats, greyhound racing dogs and offshore bank accounts in the Bahamas to his lowly personal trainer. Daniel intends to kidnap Kershaw and hold him hostage until he “voluntarily” signs his empire over to Daniel, and the three accomplices will live happily ever after on Kershaw’s wealth. It goes without saying that things go wrong and mayhem ensues.
The cast is then set adrift with no coherent idea of who their characters are or what the film hopes to accomplish. As Daniel Lugo, Mark Wahlberg opens the film as his funny, simple-minded character from The Other Guys, morphs into the intimidating tough guy from The Departed and spends the final half of the film as some incomprehensible combination of the two. Dwayne Johnson goes from beating people senseless while wearing an I Love Jesus t-shirt to struggling with a crippling substance abuse problem. Ironic? Satiric? Funny? Dramatic? Who knows? And forty-five minutes into this film, you won’t care.
As if the performances aren’t uneven enough, we are treated to a seemingly endless voiceover narration from multiple character viewpoints that tries to explain the characters and their motivations. The voiceover begins with Mark Wahlberg, segues to Dwayne Johnson, lets Tony Shaloub put in his two cents worth and is then picked up toward the end of the film by the private investigator played by Ed Harris. If I had been watching this film in my home, I would have assumed that the commentary track on the DVD had accidentally been turned on. Evidently, the writers, producers and director are not familiar with the first rule of fiction: “Show, don’t tell.”
Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Transformers) directs Pain & Gain with all the subtlety of a middle-schooler in desperate need of a Ritalin refill. He has never seen a camera angle that he doesn’t like. We peer down on the actors. We look up their nostrils from the ground. And we get pointless sweeping camera pans and spins that serve no purpose. With no robots, explosions and CGI creations to pack the screen, Bay decides to let camera movement provide his pyrotechnics instead. At a minimum, it’s distracting, but like most of this film, it eventually becomes outright annoying.
At one point, a minor supporting character says, “Every man needs to fight for his dignity.” I guess I lost mine when a stayed for the second half of this film. So, how exactly do you quantify “horrendous”? Are there really gradations of awful? How many stars, points, etc. out of 10 do you give a film like this? Here’s a thought ….
Pick a number between 1 and 4
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.