Michael Bay is spinning his new dark comedy Pain & Gain as a lower-budget personal project, a character piece that allows him to satisfy his fanciful muse before returning to less spiritually fulfilling endeavors. But don’t expect Sundance fodder from the man who previously blessed the world with Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, and other clattering cinematic migraines. Bay’s idea of “small” and “personal” is making a film not about giant robots—the stars of his Transformers trilogy—but manly men with the physiques and dimensions of giant robots. Set in sun-baked, steroid-addled ’90s Florida, Pain & Gain buffs up an ostensibly true story of greed and ruthless ambition into a comic-book macho fantasy of upward mobility gone awry. Any pretensions of satire, moral ambiguity, or social commentary get lost in a hurricane of empty, mindless spectacle.
Mark Wahlberg’s epic winning streak ends with the thankless lead role of a hotshot, morally slippery personal trainer who decides to take control of his life and his finances by kidnapping, torturing, and then seizing the assets of a rich, gaudy Jewish businessman (Tony Shalhoub). Often-unhelpful assistance arrives in the form of fellow gym freak Anthony Mackie and ex-con Dwayne Johnson, who clings to sobriety and faith as the cornerstones of a tough life. Due in no small part to the stupidity of the conspirators, the plot does not go according to plan. But that doesn't keep the overmatched crooks from plunging further and further into a world of criminality, from which they struggle to emerge with their lives or freedom intact.
Pain & Gain has one huge asset (literally) in the underrated Johnson, who lends his spiritual-struggler a sincere, poignant conviction (before he falls off the wagon) and a go-for-broke desperation (after he loses his spiritual center and embraces cocaine with the same intensity he once embraced Jesus’ purifying love). The squirmy humanity of Johnson’s performance stands in sharp contrast to the gratingly excessive visual style; Bay manages to recreate the overbearing and frenetic qualities of his usual fare, but at a fraction of the budget. Pain & Gain is less a satire of stupidity than a loud, brash, unapologetically vulgar celebration of aggression divorced from intellect. It’s the film Wahlberg and John C. Reilly’s characters in Boogie Nights would have written as a vehicle for themselves in a coked-up, narcissistic delirium, fatally unaware that the narrative makes them look like oblivious, dim-witted assholes, not the swaggering, Tony Montana-like badasses of their pop-culture–warped imaginations.