I call your attention to a scene in Michael Bay’s first “Transformers” film. I do this not to cause you pain but in the hope of offering you gain.
Shia La Boeuf and Megan Fox go back to his house to find some twerpy plot device that seems to be in his teen bedroom. They search the room with minimal light and sound so as not to alert his parents in the next room.
No such luck. They make too much noise (so does the whole movie). The parents hear the rustling and bustling anyway. They open his bedroom door and see their hapless, n’er-do-well doofus son looking for something. The look on their faces registers the usual disgust and distrust.
Then the kid’s search partner, Megan Fox, moves into the room’s shaft of light. As the cliched saying goes, the parents’ jaws drop. How and when on earth did their idiot son start hanging out with girls who look like THAT?
It’s a truly hilarious movie moment. Bay, then, has occasionally given evidence that he knows comedy from a hole in the wall.
Not in “Pain & Gain,” he doesn’t. His first foray into his idea of small, black comic, pseudo-indie movie spectacle is nothing of a sort. It’s an immensely depressing war movie.
The war is between the director and the script.
The director wins. Unequivocally. The movie loses.
Just as unequivocally.
If ever there was a director who was completely wrong for this script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – the Emmy Award-winning scriptwriters best known in moviehouses for the “Narnia” movies and “Captain America” – it’s Michael Bay (Open disclosure: Markus, profiled in Charity Vogel’s adjoining interview is a good and much-loved family friend.)
No one need know Buffalo-born and raised Markus, though, to lament what happens to the audacious black humored script he co-wrote. The tale is based on the true story of some Miami bodybuilders who decide to improve their lifestyles along with their bodies. So they torture and maim one bodybuilding client and get him to sign away his resources. Before they’re finished living their thoroughly wacked-out Dade County version of the high life, they rack up even more casualties – all out of their conviction of entitlement and the belief that “the way to prove yourself is to better yourself. That’s the American dream.”
A very funny movie could have been made from this script – a very dark one, to be sure, but one that pointedly rips apart some of the more stubborn convictions at the heart of American middle class aspiration everywhere. Here is a dimwit criminal mastermind (Mark Wahlberg doing his very best) who admits to his admittedly antipathetic chief victim “I don’t just want everything you have; I want you not to have it.”
You can’t find the right tone, though, with Michael Bay, of eternal “Transformers” and “Pearl Harbor” infamy, as director. It’s a movie that either needed Joel Coen or a young Joel Coen wannabe. Failing that, any number of other directors come to mind. (John Dahl who previously made a film of the writers’ “You Kill Me” which was set in Buffalo, as well as “Rounders” and “The Last Seduction,” is one. Sadly for megaplexes everywhere, he has disappeared into premium television – “Breaking Bad,” “The Americans” etc.)
All manner of filmmakers might have had a chance of understanding what to do with Markus and McFeely’s script and its joyfully weird moves into gyms full of body builders, Alcoholic’s Anonymous conclaves, fast food franchises, and sex toy warehouses.
But with Bay’s perennial steroid style of moviemaking, this tale of ’roid rage gone criminal can’t go anywhere close to where it wants – and needs – to go.
Not only is all the violence and “action” souped up well past any comic point, the techno-throbbing musical score is possibly the worst I have ever encountered in a motion picture. I refuse to mention the name of the composer because I honestly don’t think it’s his fault.
At every moment of “Pain and Gain” you’re being directed away from the words – which are occasionally diabolically funny – and toward the expectation of some big action or shouting match that’s just around the corner.
There are good performances here – Mark Wahlberg as the gang ringleader and, especially, Dwayne Johnson as his coke-blasted born-again cohort and Tony Shalhoub as the world’s least sympathetic crime victim. Ed Harris almost seems human as a private detective who rejects retirement to pursue these homicidal buffoons.
Some of the ultra-dark comedy in the script does indeed come through. But it’s buried under such a mind-boggling avalanche of overkill that you’ll be tempted to abandon this movie altogether long before it’s over.
Which would be tragic. Its last 20 minutes are the best of it by far.
It’s a truism of movies and almost every other art form: there is no subject in this world that demands more creative delicacy, intelligence, subtlety and finesse than rank stupidity. A corallary to that is visible throughout the full length of “Pain & Gain”: there is nothing worse in almost every scene than substituting non-stop excess and crudity for delicacy and finesse.
I admire Michael Bay for wanting to change his image in American movies. But I think everyone would have been better off if some Paramount executive had thrown an avuncular arm around his shoulders (not so easy; he’s a tall guy) and advised him to produce “Pain & Gain” and not direct it.
He’d have scored some reputation points for the attempt but still might have left a demanding script in the hands of another filmmaker who could reproduce its wacked out black comic tone.
Beyond pain and gain, there’s the moment, as runners know, when you’ve tried too hard, done too much and “hit the wall.”
It happens in “Pain & Gain” more than an hour before the film is over.