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All words: Alan Pyke

Of the dozens of infuriating things about Michael Bay – the absurd overreliance on explosions, the utter disinterest in quality dialog, the lazy objectification of women, to name just the most prominent few – the most irksome for cinephiles is the wasted potential. The man has a strong visual sense and fills even his dumbest work with excellently composed frames. His command of editing rhythms and logical storytelling is undeniable, even if he habitually turns those abilities to such trashy, unambitious purposes that he sucks the joy out of his blockbuster fare. If you’ve been wondering whether Bay would ever bring those skills to something interesting, and produce something more than empty calories, Pain & Gain is your answer: yes.

The true story behind Pain & Gain is so over-the-top insane that Bay slots in a title card a half-hour from the end reminding you that “This Is Still A True Story.” Meathead trainer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) ropes coworkers Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) into a wild-eyed scheme to extort self-made millionaire Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), with no real plan for the heist beyond “I’ve watched a lot of movies,” and even less criminal sense about how to get away with it all. Adrian is smart enough to see that Lugo’s full of shit, but stupid and greedy enough to participate anyhow. Paul is an ex-con coke addict who was born again in Christ while in the clink, and he mistakes Lugo for a mastermind. Eventually, retired detective Ed Dubois (Ed Harris) tracks the ample-if-implausible breadcrumbs the three leave in the process of stealing Kershaw’s life, and convinces the Miami police department to take the trio seriously after their second, messier attempt at the same smash-and-grab identity theft.

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The escalating cocktail of avarice and imbecility at the core of Pain & Gain provides ample hilarity, and the whole thing would be madcap and guiltless if it weren’t a true story ending on death row. Each man, beginning with Lugo, introduces himself with a voiceover and biographical montage, but it’s the movingly earnest stupidity of Lugo’s bullying- and credulity-fueled arc from gym trainer to death row tenant that allows the goofy proceedings to amount to more than the sum of their parts. He is an embodiment of every strain of American entitlement, grandiosity, gullibility, cowardice, and idiocy. His personal philosophy is a warped mixture of American Dream fictions and “The Secret” self-delusion. Lugo preaches of second chances at a sentencing hearing for defrauding retirees, berates his henchmen for cowardice and lacking ambition, and insists positive thinking is the key to success (“If I deserve it, the universe will serve it”). But he’s a chickenshit moron himself in every instance that matters, bullying Paul into doing the dirty work then refusing to acknowledge his own complicity.

In case you were too busy laughing at what an idiot he is to notice he’s also a bullying, self-aggrandizing incompetent, Bay includes a scene of him “coaching” neighborhood kids at basketball in which he revels in dunking on 10-year-olds. And Bay expands the scope of his wanting-to-believe critique far beyond Lugo’s one-man tour-de-dumbass-force, introducing various institutions of American scam artistry and collective self-deception: extreme bodybuilding, Alcoholics Anonymous, a self-help guru (The Hangover‘s Ken Jeong), and even the CIA. The surrounding material is all stock Bay stuff, beautifully arranged punchlines and trash, bouncing handicams with circling shots and bright colors. But with the backdrop of American self-mythologizing and self-improvement in service of deep-seated entitlement, the epic framings and telltale Bay style read as the mocking tools of a jester in the king’s court rather than the rah-rah jingoism he so often purveys.

Don’t worry, though, Bay hasn’t overcorrected and moved out of his wheelhouse. Pain & Gain has legitimate thematics and a handful of ideas to share, but they’re not crowding out the fun. The movie is peppered with a full gamut of laughs, from simple to subtle to uneasy (Bridesmaids‘ Rebel Wilson, as Adrian’s wife, gets some of the biggest laugh lines, but for my money the funniest moments all involve Dwayne Johnson’s coke addict-turned-altar boy and his increasingly absurd collection of Jesus-themed t-shirts). There may only be one explosion, and it may hardly qualify as an explosion on the Bay scale, but this isn’t serious or stuffy or stiff-necked moviemaking. With The Rock as one bound and Pain & Gain as the other, we may have defined a small-but-real Michael Bay Sweet Spot, within which it’s possible to have fun and still respect yourself as you leave the theater.

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