I can recall my first review of Pain and Gain back in the day was one of the few reviews that I’ve written that had people respectfully expressing their disagreements with my intense dislike of the film at the time. And in some ways, I admit that I was a little bit too harsh on the film.
Despite my many grievances with Micheal Bay as a director, I share his fascination with this true-life story and want to portray it on the big screen. With how tragically absurd the whole situation got, Bay does make some keen observations on the American Dream, hiding one’s insecurities through over-the-top displays of machismo and the desire to make it to the top at any cost.
The cast is solid. Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie do a lot of heavy lifting to making Pain and Gain watchable through sheer charisma and energy. Johnson’s struggles between wanting to be a good man for God and being a criminal got the biggest laughs out of me. Ed Harris and Tony Shalhoub are welcome additions as well.
But despite how thematically sound and well-acted the film is, I can’t get over how Bay’s direction makes Pain and Gain feel like a total mess. I’m not against this story, even if filled with tragic repercussions for innocent people being played as a dark satire. My issue is that the film could never properly juggle all of the elements in this story. A narrative in which our main characters kidnap, extort, torture, and murder various people. I understand the point, but it never clicked to the point where I felt the final package made a coherently complete film.
I love tonal dissonances in these types of stories. Look to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street (Of which the latter was released in the same year as Pain and Gain). Still, Scorsese also knew had to balance the dark humor and watch our character commit terrible deeds without his films feeling messy to the point where it takes the viewer out of the story. But when characters are talking about removing breast implants out of a dead woman (And that is being portrayed as a joke), playing up the fact they are total idiots can get you so far before some viewers decide to check out.
Part of what makes this film feel so disjointed for me is that every character has some narration. Something that Scorsese used to perfection also in his films. But they also keep it to one or two characters at a minimum so that the audience can clearly understand whose perspective we are following throughout the film. But when it everybody, then I just get lost about who the film is really about. I know what the film is about, but Pain and Gain seem unable to understand its own material well enough.
Bay’s comedy usually has never sat right with me, and this film doesn’t prove to be the exception. There are some good moments when the film gets cheeky about how out of their depth our leads are, but you get many typical transformers’ humor that feels tailored to the lowest common denominator. Even if Bay’s unrestrained approach were truly the only way to convey the crazy ramifications of this situation properly, it wouldn’t hurt Bay to know when he should dial certain things back as well.
This is one of those movies where I feel very complicated. I’m glad that many people did enjoy this film, and I can see why. It is kind of refreshing to see a director so unashamed to be wildly bombastic as Bay to make a film that effectively pokes at his own signature trademarks his other works have become infamous for. I don’t think he was able to realize the potential of this crazy story fully. Certainly a lot better than his other works for sure, but there is still is a lot to be desired, at least for me.