PAIN AND GAIN.
Michael Bay is known for making films where you jettison your brain at the door :the nonsensical scribbling of “Transformers”, The obvious Oscar-bait of “Pearl Harbour”, the sheer spectacle of the utterly vapid “Armageddon”. It goes without saying that Bay looks at narrative and characterisation as a luxury, the stitching that often doesn't hold together the rest of the film, with something like a plot being merely the quiet bits between the explosions. With this, Bay delivers his masterpiece. Then again, considering the quality of the rest of his work, a shopping list has more substance than the Transforminators junk. To say I loathe his vapid, stupid, idiotic boom-and-boobs filmmaking is an understatement. He clearly and often demonstrates his contempt for his audience in his other films. But this? This is exactly the kind of film that David Fincher should have made after “Fight Club”.
Here? “Pain And Gain” is a glorious, knowingly stupid, utterly brilliant film. Rarely has any film-maker so completely given themselves to a conceit, and executed it perfectly. The irony here is richer than a millionaire : Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, a barely-making-ends-meet personal fitness trainer, who sees the American Dream as his god-given right achievable by any means necessary : not as a thing to be earnt, but as something owed, something stolen from him by the unequal who cheated the system through luck and talent. It's half 80's excess, half Fight Club, played with the kind of conviction that Arnhald gave the original “Total Recall”, backed by a Oscarworthy (I kid you not), The Rock as Paul, a born-again Coke fiend with a prudish streak a mile wide who seems to have just stepped off an old version of Grand Theft Auto. The Rock is awesome and utterly convincing as a man-mountain, half-child with more issues than a daily newspaper.
But what a ride! Taste is jettisoned where every outlandish act is escalated, and escalated, until the point where you cannot actually believe that this is based on a true story, at which point, the film breaks the fourth wall to make absolutely sure you know certain events absolutely happened. And whilst certain parts of it are telegraphed long in advance, the execution of them is so brazenly tasteless that there is a sense, bizarrely, of “Is that all?”. The final proof of evidence in a confident courtroom scene is so utterly bizarre as to only be true.
Perhaps the greatest compliment is that I haven't seen a film so obviously aware of, and using the medium to draw attention to itself since “Fight Club” which is its nearest spiritual cousin : an example of a film which knows the rules, and knows which rules to not just break, but to utterly humiliate whilst doing so. Multiple characters are given voiceovers, including at one point, an inanimate object in a stroke of utter paranoid gonzo genius. The idea of the object being sentient is in itself a moment where at least one person should give up on the film, but instead, it is Bay's total, beyond the pale commitment that makes this film work. Where most of his films require a stupidity to work and be watchable – this is one of the few films of his which requires that stupidity to only be on the screen, and not in the theatre. Bluntly put, everyone in the audience knows the plan they execute is dunderheaded and doomed to fail, and the commitment bias of The Rock, Wahlberg, and Anthony Mackie as the core Three Musketeers who stick to the plan, no matter how insane and obviously stupid the plan is, is the genius at the core of the film. This is a film about three very ambitious and stupid people, who did something so incredibly unintelligent that it baffles the mind, yet committed to it, executed it, and ultimately could not escape it. “Pain And Gain” is, undoubtedly, a biting satire on the American Dream (etc etc.), but also a tasteless and improbable ride ideal for children of all ages.