Pain & Gain is a broad crime comedy based on the true story of three knuckleheaded bodybuilders from Miami who kidnapped and extorted money from a shady businessman in the dumbest possible way and somehow got away with it — for a little while, at least. Unlike all of Michael Bay’s other big-budget blockbusters (the Transformers series, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor), this one requires the director to flex some different muscles.
Unfortunately, those muscles are atrophied from lack of use, so Pain & Gain comes off less like a black comedy and more like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. Perhaps Bay is used to his epic space-robots-smash running times, but relying on punchlines a la smash-and-grab sketch comedy is not a good thing for a film that’s two hours and 10 minutes long.
Sure, there are some genuinely funny moments that arise from this absurd tale, which features Mark Wahlberg as the wannabe criminal mastermind who won’t let anything get in the way of his American dream. The trick is, Wahlberg’s character hasn’t earned it and isn’t smart enough to do it without breaking the law. The screenplay isn’t smart enough to let the characters speak for themselves, so they keep cramming the theme of the film down our throat. Dwayne Johnson is always appealing and full of affable charm, even when he’s stuck in mediocre or offensive movies like G.I. Joe Retaliation, but when Pain & Gain requires him to stray too far from the one-dimensional religious nut cliche he’s doing, it doesn’t work.
The only real actor who makes something more of his role is Anthony Mackie, whose desperation to “succeed” is palpable. He would fit right in if this were a Coen brothers movie with the same themes. (Comparisons to their stellar sad-sack black comedies like Burn After Reading and Fargo are inevitable. This one doesn’t even come close.) Bay doesn’t have the versatility to pull off a story that requires a delicate balancing act because his fetishes as a director/storyteller are the same as his juvenile lead characters.
His slow-motion prowess and action-film chops add a surreal element to Pain & Gain, but Bay’s camera leers at the world the same way his characters do. He wants to celebrate his “heroes” at the same time he’s making fun of them, but his over-the-top delivery gives him away. On top of that, the constant narration (provided by multiple characters at any given moment) gives away too much of the mystery of their motives and Pain & Gain ends up trying way too hard to be funny.
What it ends up being is one very uneven and confused movie. By the time Ed Harris enters the picture, any hope for fluid pacing is abandoned and the film sputters to a halt. Because it plays like a series of sketches tied together loosely by a misguided, macho “don’t quit” ethos (one Bay obviously took to heart), maybe Pain & Gain will play better once its been chopped up into 15-minute fragments on Comedy Central in a year or two, when cohesion doesn’t matter.