"Pain & Gain" Marks Career Low For Michael Bay

Michael Bay. Those ten letters, arranged precisely in that order, are enough to send any student of American popular culture into a tizzy – either frothing at the mouth in defense of the gleeful amoralism of “Bad Boys II,” or wincing in pain at the thought of a “Transformers” marathon. If there’s a more divisive personality in Hollywood, Michael Bay would probably like to meet that person – and knock his or her teeth out. His notoriously flammable temperament has always driven his technical abilities – talent has never been his problem – but his instincts on all other fronts are usually suspect.

Bay’s latest, “Pain & Gain,” is closest in spirit to his aforementioned “Bad Boys” sequel, but it sees him willfully bereft of his usual bag of tricks (read: inflated budget). Made on the “cheap” – for a mere $25 million – it’s the kind of picture that revels in its own rottenness, its decayed core fully exposed and drawing flies long before the arrival of the end credits. Let it be known that I’ve always been quick to defend the tacky spectacle of “Armageddon,” so the following venom is neither blind nor deaf. Nor unearned.

Based on a true story, “Pain & Gain” is a monumentally ill-conceived buddy comedy, painting its main characters as lovable idiots when, in fact, their escapades landed them a well-earned trip to death row – where they remain to this day. The screenplay, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, zigs and zags between light comedy, small-scale action, and – oh, no – tons of character work. With so little narrative muscle, the film essentially becomes a character study. Was anyone pining for a Michael Bay-helmed character piece about scumbag bodybuilders?

Set in Miami circa 1994, Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a dunderheaded fitness buff who thinks he deserves a better life because – well, something about the American Dream. Lugo decides to team up with one of his clients, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), to kidnap and rob another one of his clients, the well-to-do Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Bay’s sneering, money-grubbing depiction of Kershaw veers a little too close to anti-Semitism, while his patented brand of misogyny is back with a vengeance. But to call the picture anti-Semitic or misogynistic is to miss the point. It’s anti-human.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson rounds out the leads as Paul Doyle, the roided-out, Gospel-preaching cokehead who aids Lugo and Doorbal in their criminal activities. Johnson is livelier here than he’s ever been on-screen, but the material is so clumsy that his performance never takes flight. Rob Corddry and Rebel Wilson are underutilized in supporting roles while Ed Harris gets a thankless turn as Ed DuBois, a private investigator. It’s the role that would have served as the protagonist in a more competent picture, but here, it’s ancillary. Worst of all, Harris gets the unenviable task of explaining away Lugo and company as guilty of being “dumb, stupid [expletive].”

And that’s the film’s biggest crime. Not that its exposition is often delivered via awkward, unexplained voiceover. Not that it goes on for at least 30 minutes too long. Not even that it fails to engage a pretty terrific cast. The real problem with “Pain & Gain” is its nonchalance. This is an extremely unpleasant true story that’s handled with inexplicable breeziness, and it gives a duo of real-life murderers a pass for being “dumb.”

Michael Bay has never shied away from his own bad taste, but here, he’s lapped himself. The film is a victory lap in his fight against coherent storytelling, and the lack of discernible action cements his status as an action-only filmmaker. Without the ability to lean on his typical flamboyance, his visual style is stunted to the point that it becomes a parody of itself. Lots of expensive cars and lots of attractive, scantily-clad women. It’s clearer than ever that this who Michael Bay is. “Pain & Gain” has two or three solid laughs, but it’s Bay’s worst film to date and the biggest piece of evidence yet in the case against him. I regret having seen it. Sometimes it’s better not to know.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: April 26, 2013
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Michael Bay
Screenwriter: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Scott Rosenberg
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry, Tony Shalhoub, Bar Paly, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, Yolanthe Cabau
MPAA Rating: R (for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use)