Movie Review: Pain & Gain
By Matthew Huntley
May 2, 2013
At its core, Pain & Gain is a tragedy, because out of this “true story” two people are viciously murdered for no good reason. And yet the movie is being sold as a bizarre, testosterone-driven comedy, a description that’s also valid because when you stand outside the plot and look in, it is indeed funny how anybody could screw up or behave as badly as the characters. It’s not funny in the “ha-ha” sense, but more in the “I can’t believe anyone could be this stupid” sense. If the filmmakers took the underlying material lightly, it probably wouldn’t have worked, but underneath the machismo, action and farce, they look upon it with grave solemnity, and that approach does work.
The film takes place over the course of six months in Miami, beginning in late 1994, when Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a bodybuilder and personal trainer at a reputable gym, comes up with the brilliant idea of kidnapping a rich client and forcing him to sign away all his assets. Daniel is driven by many things: fitness, patriotism and the words of a self-help/motivational speaker named Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), who preaches, “Be a doer, not a don’t-er!”
Daniel listens to Wu’s advice without the slightest bit of suspicion, hesitation or irony and concocts the kidnapping scheme with his friend and fellow body builders Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), both of whom are just as thick-headed as Daniel in the morals and common sense departments. Adrian suffers from erectile dysfunction, courtesy of all the steroids he injects into his body, and Paul is an ex-con and now-sober cocaine addict who claims to have found Jesus Christ and let him into his heart. Even though Paul sometimes appears to be a softie, he can still be violently reactionary when he finds himself in an uncomfortable situation.
The man these blockheads plan to steal from is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a self-made millionaire from Colombia, whom the movie paints Victor as an egotist and misogynist but not necessarily someone we want to see suffer. He’s one of the film’s many narrators who recollects how he got mixed up in the plot, which quickly spirals out of control.
After no fewer than three failed attempts to kidnap Victor in broad daylight, Daniel, Adrian and Paul eventually snatch him and hold him hostage in a warehouse full of sex toys. Victor may be blindfolded, but he’s not stupid, and he quickly identifies his captors, priding himself as a man who can take a beating and endure a lot of pain and suffering. It takes several days for him to crack before he finally signs the papers that relinquish him of his fortune, including his mansion.
The last piece of Daniel’s inept plan is to kill Victor, but even that proves to be a trying experience. No staged drunk driving accident, burning or skull crushing seems to do the trick, and so Victor gets away. Nobody believes his story, though, except a retired private detective named Ed DuBois (Ed Harris), who begins to unravel the plot from the beginning, right before things get even more out of hand. Adrian and Paul burn through their cuts so fast - Adrian by marrying a nurse (Rebel Wilson) and buying an expensive house and Paul by succumbing to his coke addiction again - they’re desperate to pull off another job.
Where the movie goes from here and just how outlandish the subsequent events become, I leave for you to discover. I don’t know how many of them are based on cold hard facts, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter either way, because the movie convinced me they really did, or at least could, happen in the world Pain & Gain presents to us. What’s astonishing, and perhaps sad, is that nothing that transpired seemed too incredible or farfetched. Whether that’s my cynical view of just how dumb real people can be or a credit to director Michael Bay for simply observing his characters and allowing their eccentric behavior to wrap us up in the story, I’m not quite sure, but the movie establishes a certain sense of credibility and goes on to maintain it.
Credit must also be given to Wahlberg, Mackie and Johnson for creating distinct, plausible characters, especially in the face of such a wild and twisted plot. These types of roles could have easily gone over the top, but the actors stay grounded and convince us people like Daniel, Adrian and Paul could really exist, and even though the closing credits confirm they really do, that’s not the point. The question is, do we believe what they do in the context of the movie? The answer is yes, and that’s no easy task.
A movie like Pain & Gain might draw comparisons to Fargo, which many would place at the top of the list as far as dark, tragic comedies about murder-kidnapping schemes that go terribly wrong. It would not be an unfair comparison, and not just because the two have similar content and trajectories, but because both remind us there are extreme, ugly sides to human nature that we’d like to pretend don’t exist even though, deep down, we know they do. Those sides can often be grotesque and unimaginable, but that doesn’t mean they’re not also fascinating. Pain & Gain isn’t up to the level of Fargo, but it draws us in and holds our attention. We can’t help but watch (and laugh at) it as the characters constantly trip over themselves. Maybe that makes us blameworthy, too.