April 26, 2013



PAIN AND GAIN:  Watch It At Home – Michael Bay On a Small Scale is Still Michael Bay

There’s an almost meta strain that runs through Michael Bay’s PAIN AND GAIN, and you have to wonder, watching it, how much Bay was conscious of the fact that his customary musclebound, bloated, meatheaded style of filmmaking mirrored the mindset of its heroes.  Pain and Gain ridicules them, but it’s also pretty much the movie they would have made about themselves if they had the opportunity (and the talent).

Pain and Gain is, we are repeatedly told, based on a true story, and even in its craziest moments, the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely appears to follow the general outlines of what really happened (although giving it all a broadly comic tone).  In the mid 1990s, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) was a Miami body-builder addicted to self-help actualization platitudes (his inspirational speaker of choice is played by Ken Jeong) who recruited Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), an ex-con who found sobriety and Jesus in prison, and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), who was suffering the sexual side effects of steroid use, to kidnap the obnoxious businessman Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub).  The plan was to get Kershaw to sign over his assets to the gang, but Kershaw, half-Colombian and half-Jewish, was a tough guy, and it took months of torture to wear him down.  Once they had his signature, they tried to kill him, but he was as hard to off as Rasputin, and he was only wounded.  The police, hung up on his Colombian roots, didn’t believe or care about his account of his imprisonment, so Kershaw hired private investigator Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) to gather evidence.  Meanwhile, Lugo, Doyle and Doorbal, while living their version of the American Dream (big houses, hot cars, lots of cocaine), were on a downhill spiral that ultimately led to murders–which were, in this version of the story, somewhat accidental.

This is the kind of material the Coen Brothers have made their own in thriller-farces like Blood Simple, Fargo, The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading, and even for them, the proper tone is often difficult to pull off.  (The Ladykillers won’t be on many Coen top 10 lists.)  It’s not exactly a surprise to find that Michael Bay lacks their finesse.  Working on a much-publicized $25M budget (which gets something of an asterisk, since Bay, Wahlberg and Johnson worked for low fees in exchange for large pieces of the back end), Bay may not have all the toys available from his Transformer movies, but the sensibility here isn’t all that different.  Pain and Gain shares with most Bay pictures a combination of frenzied pace and wearying length (128 minutes), dialogue that consists for the most part of people yelling at each other (and since this one is R-rated, cursing nonstop), and characterizations that go no more than suntan deep.

Bay is very skilled at what he does, and Pain and Gain is well put together, with precise cinematography by Ben Seresin that makes good use of the eternal Miami sun, the usual quick cutting, this time by Thomas A. Muldoon and Joel Negron, and a score that mixes original music by Steve Jablonsky with period songs.  Even with the bargain price-tag, there are plenty of car crashes, chases and gunshots, although a $25M Michael Bay can’t make use of the sense of gigantic scale that’s made even some of his more idiotic action epics so watchable.  And the cast is totally game–Wahlberg and Johnson have demonstrated their comic chops in other movies and are sometimes very funny here in their increasing desperation, and the supporting cast also includes Rebel Wilson, Michael Rispoli, and as a particularly dim-witted stripper, the model Bar Paly.

But there’s no point to it all.  The Coens are drawn to darkly comic tales of the way human misunderstandings and paranoia lead to horrible ends (the same themes are part of their more serious films like Miller’s Crossing and No Country For Old Men), but Bay doesn’t seem to have anything on his mind.  Pain and Gain is occasionally satiric, but toothlessly so.  As the movie’s violence becomes uglier and deadlier, it tries to maintain its “we’re just kidding” tone to increasingly strained effect, and it’s ineffectual when it tries to shift into black comedy.  Ultimately, it’s more than two hours of high-decibel, unlikeable idiots (except for Ed Harris, who’s allowed to keep his dignity) making spectacles of themselves.  Bay can’t really handle the complexities of human beings; you can feel him missing his robot aliens.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."