01 May 2013

First Impressions: Pain & Gain

"I believe in fitness."

Prepare yourself for the craziest film of the year (or at least one that attempts to give Spring Breakers [2013] a run for its money), as well as the Greatest Film that has ever been made by World-renowned Auteur Michael Bay. This is Pain & Gain (2013).

I've read many reviews of this film all over the Internet, and one thing that strikes me is a complete misunderstanding of how thoroughly and precisely this film honors, skewers, then relishes in Gym Culture. Some people get that, but lack and understanding of film to properly deploy criticism. This is a film about GTL and cocaine-loving psychopaths wrapped up in a package of steroids and the most subtle Bay directing in a decade. That has exactly as much merit as it would seem. Plenty of SPOILERS to come, but it's based on a story that was reported over twelve years ago, so either read that or go see the movie then join in our discussion:

Let's get the messiness out of the way first. The very means of this adaptation is fairly insenstive, and it's clear by now that Michael Bay has no scruples whatsover over his glorification of male gaze, violence, or twisting an already twisted story for the sake of moviemaking. A quick glance at the individuals who inspired the characters in this film is revealing. It's clear that, despite some Medicare fraud, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub)'s real-life counterpart, Marc Schiller was not nearly as sleazy or deserving of the torture he receives in the film. The same goes for Frank Griga and his ample girlfriend, Krisztina Furton, who, despite making a fortune in phone sex, appear less lurid and scummy and more the genuine victim of a gang of sociopaths. Finally, it's clear that Daniel Lugo and Adrian Doorball were not as plucky and loveable as depicted by Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie, respectively. On some level there is a moral problem with depicting the characters this way, although a more true-to-life depiction would not be nearly as narratively unique or interesting. Is that justification enough? That question ought to be a fine gauge of how much you love cinema.

"I'm Hot! I'm Big!"

So, with that moral dubiousness out of the way, let's strike at the heart of Pain & Gain. Those words echo again: "I BELIEVE IN FITNESS." The great irony at the heart of this movie is the delusion and hypocrisy of each member of the Sun Gym Gang Triad. Each member is essentially weak-willed and insecure, and each finds someone to follow, allows a bit of brainwashing in their attachment, and through a massive overestimation of their own abilities, operates under delusion.

Let's start with Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) as the leader of the bunch. Lugo prides himself on the work he puts into the gym and his business. He continually repeats phrases like "I'm a hard-worker!" and "I'm a doer!" to himself, the courts, and the press. This is all misplaced, though. He doesn't work hard for his fortune, he steals it. Sure, there's some effort in concocting his schemes, but the great hypocrisy here is that he looks down on everyone around him because they aren't dedicating themselves to physical perfection like he is. Whether he realizes it or not, the extremely high value he places on physical prowess is not shared by society, and he can't make a multimillion dollar career out of weightlifting and training. He can't understand why that is, and so he turns to crime to get ahead.

The first in a string of appearances of Bay Veterans, Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong - Transformers: Dark of the Moon [2011]) gives Lugo the answers. His "doer" and "don't-er" mantra becomes Lugo's lifeblood. It effectively brainwashes Lugo into thinking he's special and important, and deserves a place in high society, with no real means or rationale on how to get there. Lugo is a weak mind. He's susceptible to this kind of seemingly self-serving manipulation and he totally immerses himself in Wu's teachings. Wahlberg throws himself into this role with a level of earnestness that is hard to replicate by any of his contemporaries. From the first scene of him running in slow motion while wearing a track suit, his endlessly goofy face lets you know he's in on the goof. Hopefully...

Paul Doyle (The Rock) is an on-again off-again Christian as well as an on-again off-again cokehead. His jangled nerves make him susceptible to both, but as a Christian AA member he's the most reliable member of the Gang. As the cokehead, he's the least reliable. This is perhaps the greatest character Dwayne Johnson has ever played. He balances Paul's inherent violent nature with a genuine desire for reform with extremely heavy doses of charisma and muscles. It's true, there isn't a scene in the film where the Rock isn't sweating and the sun isn't glistening off his muscles that are more ripped up than ever here. He's a crazy imposing presence in every scene based on size alone, but generally acts meek enough to let the other characters step over him.

Doyle relies on Alcoholics Anonymous like Lugo relies on Johnny Wu. They are both able to identify other followers by phrases or mantras, and both dedicate their souls to the following after having no where else to turn. Whereas Wu has an amplifying effect on the more ego-driven parts of Lugo's personality though, AA tends to balance Doyle. Once he falls off the wagon (or more correctly, when Lugo pushes him off the wagon), it's clear how much AA was helping him. He becomes an absolute disaster spinning out of control with further women, shopping, glitz and coke, and eventually a robbery that ends with his toe being shot off.

Adrian Doorball (Anthony Mackie) wants to take shortcuts. He's quick to turn to medical techniques to both gain muscle mass by taking steroids, and then to fix his dong when it stops working because of said steroids. Mackie has impressed viewers with grave, dramatic roles in films like We Are Marshall (2006) and The Hurt Locker (2008), and it's nice to see him having some fun here as the dopiest member of the gang. And like the self-brainwashing of the other characters, Doorball also dedicates himself to a following - Lugo himself. Doorball wholeheartedly becomes Lugo's righthand man, and leans on his every teaching like it was serving his very soul.


The rest of the cast is remarkably strong. Tony Shaloub is a slimeball, although the problem with that kind of inaccuracy is listed above. Rebel Wilson also appears here as she should - a little more grounded and less like she's flailing around desperately to become a more shocking version of Melissa McCarthy. Her interactions with Mackie, in particular his penis, make for some of the film's best scenes.

In addition to Wilson, Pain & Gain also allows some comedic actors to step slightly out of their wheelhouse, which is refreshing. Jeong has done this before, but it was certainly unexpected here. Also unexpected is Rob Corddry, playing the Gym manager (portrayed here more innocently than his real-life counterpart was), who unwittingly seals the deal on the Gang's plot. There's almost these two films going on that brings these actors to equilibrium - the comics get to do drama and the action stars get to do comedy.

And I didn't even know that Ed Harris was in this movie. As another Bay Alum (The Rock [1996]), he ads a good amount of gravitas; par for the course for Ed. We've also got a brief cameo by Peter Stormare (Armageddon [1998], Bad Boys II [2003] who is more or less channeling his doctor character from Minority Report (2002), which doesn't make it any less squeamish to see him reading a giant needle to stick in Anthony Mackie's dick. Yep - that's the second reference to male genitalia - in a Michael Bay Film!

Don't worry, there are titties everywhere, too. It's actually rare to see bare-ass titties in a Bay Film, but they're on display here, which greatly gives this R-rated flick the necessary doses of drugs, sex, and violence. Why not go for all three as long as you're there? Rounding out bits of the cast are Bar Poly and the guy who played Kramer on Jerry's TV pilot on the fourth season of Seinfeld. Where has that dude been!?

Bar Poly plays what might be one of the dumbest characters to ever grace a cinema screen. Oh yeah, she was based on a real person. That's a shame. She believes that Mark Wahlberg's character is a music video director, then a CIA Agent when it's clear that her music video career is going no where. And, about halfway through, Mark just gives her to the Rock. It's a strange swap, that Lugo even comments on later, saying that he doesn't even care, he'll just give away hot chicks because he's that awesome. Cool, bro.

Go Dolphins

Any movie that opens with Mark Wahlberg doing wall sit-ups and then running slo mo from the cops is going to be spectacular. There is a frenetic energy that grips Pain & Gain as it relishes in its Miami atmosphere. Miami has slowly turned from being the town of Cuban cokedealers and old Jews and homosexuals to a nice, family town where you can chill and watch a Heat game. Okay, maybe not.

This film serves many other purposes beyond its intricate yet enormously fun character study of overcompensating meatheads. It's a loving swan song of the 90s - almost to the point of giving it the Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) treatment. The 90s are an interesting decade - a film would look very different set in the same time period in Seattle, New York, or Los Angeles. Each corner of the country was doing very different things, and this ode to musclehead beach & babe 90s culture has a nice little understudied niche. Will 90s nostalgia come back as strong as 80s nostalgia is still sapping our culture? Pain & Gain will lead the way.

There's also this very strange tone through the movie that teeters between loving homage and satire of the culture, as well as a fairly grim black comedy that dips at points into poor taste, especially considering its real-life source material. It's equally comedy and action, although it often seems unaware of its irony. It's a strange mash-up that many different viewers could interpret differently, depending on how they read Bay's intentions and Mark's acting. I'd like to think that at some level they were self-aware of their insanity, and just relished in it. To me, that's some refreshing filmmaking.

The narration and occasional titles (such as "THIS IS STILL BASED ON A TRUE STORY" that pops up when Doyle starts grilling some hands outside. You read that correctly) emphasize almost a documentary-like nature of the film, recounting personal events and feelings, and also really ramp up the ludicrousness of the characters. Oftentimes narration doesn't really add to the story, but there are moments, for example, where it isn't really enough to just see Doyle agreeing with Lugo. You need to hear in his head his entire thought process, and the fact that he believes that Lugo is such a genius while we're also seeing how objectively terrible his plans are adds to the greatness of this film's character development.

Doyle isn't the only one who thinks that Lugo is a genius. After his own incarceration, Lugo goes on this ego trip throughout the whole film that eventually leads to his own hubris and demise. Lugo is praised by his boss, Doorball, and Doyle constantly until he runs up against Griga, who informs him that, as we are all aware, he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. Lugo is incapable of dealing with his own failure and loses control. I ought to note that a push-up contest going on in the next room, and the nervous pumping that happens after the murders are exactly within the Gym Rat mindset and the kind of misplaced yet tempting importance given to the pursuit of physical perfection. Lugo has a disdain for those who do not pursue this. Even when he's captured by the end, he's disappointed that he couldn't make Ed Harris get big. What is wrong with you, Lugo?

When Lugo and Doorball's death sentences are read, it's a harsh reminder that despite the unbelievability of everything we just witnessed, this is still a movie that takes place in the real world. It's almost a nice capping satire that in the real world, many of our action movie heroes and especially the anti-heroes would be put to death for their crimes. Lugo and Doorball were criminals, though, deluded by their own misguided affiliations and pursuit of a better life. There are no shortcuts to the American dream.

Pump on.

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