Movie Review: Pain & Gain
By Edwin Davies
May 7, 2013
It's not an impossible balance; Chris Morris managed much the same trick in his hilarious, deeply sad suicide bomber comedy Four Lions. But Bay has such a tin ear for comedy (the only really funny line in the whole film comes from Doyle describing his God-given talents) and such a completely tone-deaf approach to satire, that he winds up creating a film which isn't funny, and revels in the stupid violence of its characters without seeming to have any point to make about the violence.
Inevitably, his "every shot is a money shot" aesthetic, as well as rendering pretty much every use of slow-motion or an unusual camera angle meaningless, results in every action being Awesome. (Also, it's telling that Bay only seems to really perk up any time a scene requires a scantily clad woman to pose suggestively: if nothing else, he remains America's foremost non-hardcore pornographer.) The police coming to arrest them: Awesome. Scenes of torture: Awesome. Scenes of them doing nothing: Awesome. Nothing they do is anything other than Awesome, and that prevents it from having any iota of insight or wit. In its final moments, it tries to throw a shade of redemption on proceedings, but what it really seems to be saying is that it's totally cool to kidnap and murder people because that's America.
But it's not a cynical indictment of that idea, it's an earnest celebration of it! There's a moment very early in the film where Lugo lists his heroes, men who were self-made and built a place in the world for themselves. Among the names listed are Tony Montana from Brian De Palma's Scarface, a film equally as troubling as Pain & Gain in its skewed attempt to denounce and laud violence for violence's sake, and the cast of The Godfather. It seems like the film is making a cheeky comment on the moral compass of Lugo; showing that he views these characters as self-made men while disregarding their methods, in the process imagining himself as a similar badass and justifying his pursuit of happiness by any means necessary. It actually doubles as an illustration of Michael Bay's approach to the story: he genuinely seems to view the characters as people worth caring about, to the extent of making their victims look like villains for not giving up their money and/or dying cleanly.
Even the darkest moments - such as one in which corpses have to be dismembered - are staged as slapstick. Whereas in the original articles, that moment is described in gripping, clinical and disgusting detail, here it is played as broad as possible. Bay shows his customary disregard for human life throughout, but that scene is particularly grim, both in terms of the shabby surroundings and the way in which the real-life death of a human being is re-staged as a set-up for bad jokes.
Pain & Gain is aesthetically, morally and comedically bankrupt. It's a crass, torrid and unpleasant journey through the life of three morons who tried to get rich through acts of cold-blooded murder, re-imagined as a knockabout romp full of toilet humor, upskirt shots and incessant slow-motion. In short, it's the best film that Michael Bay has made in the last ten years, and easily one of the worst you are likely to see this year. If you really want to know the story, read Pete Collins' original articles. Not only do they display more wit, nuance and sensitivity than Bay's head-poundingly stupid film, but it will take you less time to read them than to watch this insufferable migraine of a movie.