Pain and Gain review: American nightmare

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Pain and Gain green light Anthony Mackie Mark Wahlberg Dwyane Johnson

A bleak, bitter, wicked pleasure that holds up the underpinnings of modern America — self-help, Jesus, and violence — for ridicule.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast

I’m “biast” (con): hate the director

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I’m in a tricky spot with Pain and Gain. Here I am, notorious hater of Michael Bay… but I cannot deny that this, his first foray into (intentional) comedy, is good. In fact, it’s great, in a bleak, bitter, blackly satirical way. But I can’t help but wonder if it could be an accident, or a coincidence, that this is a Michael Bay film. Maybe the script, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on the Miami New Times articles by Pete Collins), was so good that there’s no way Bay could have screwed it up. Markus and McFeely wrote the pulpy-good Captain America: The First Avenger and the wonderfully droll black comedy You Kill Me, so there’s decent support for this theory. As is the fact that Bay does indeed try his damnedest to Bay-ify the proceedings: stuff explodes somewhat randomly all over the place; women are mostly nothing but anonymous ornamental asses and boobs to be shaken in front of the camera; gay panic and homophobia echoes through the film. And there doesn’t appear to be any knowing irony in a tale that is about the toxicity of American society, its shallowness and rapaciousness, even as it has been created by a showman who has been enthusiastically pouring acid into the vast vat of cultural carcinogen for the last 20 years.

Or maybe Bay was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and is intent on mending his antisocial ways (Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Island) before he ends up a sad, lonely old recluse alone in the Hollywood Hills with nothing but Bad Boys II on endless replay to keep him company.

I just don’t know.

Whatever is going on with Bay, Pain and Gain ended up a wicked pleasure, a stew of terrible human behavior carried out by morons who believe they are brilliant and who are driven to their crimes by the worst doctrines of rah-rah Americanism… because they’re the doctrines that, paradoxically, are generally held to be positive and motivational, so why wouldn’t they do what they do? Logic! U.S.A.! It’s actually kinda shocking for a Hollywood flick to be so blatant about holding up the underpinnings of modern America for such ridicule: “You deserve to be rich! Just look at all the people who have more and better stuff than you but aren’t half as decent as you are. But it’s entirely your own fault if you’re not rich, so you need to get off your ass and try harder. Jesus wants you to be rich, but not if you’re a lazy bum!”

Wait. Some Americans wouldn’t see satire in that.

For all that it’s very, very funny, Pain and Gain isn’t just about ridicule but also about horror. “Unfortunately,” we are informed as the film opens, “this is a true story.” Somewhat loosely based: some real-life personages have been combined; some details differ slightly from actual events, but not in any way that gins up a less significant reality into something that takes on a meaning it previously did not have. About two-thirds of the way along Pain and Gain, after we have been bombarded with endless outrageous idiocy and villainy on the part of the do-badders, the film is compelled to remind us that “this is still a true story”… and the thing that is happening onscreen before our incredulous eyes that necessitates such a reminder did in fact happen.

If real people hadn’t actually done the things we see here, we’d likely never believe it. Of course, there’s nothing funny about how they tortured and murdered people. What’s funny — in a raw, cutting sort of way — is why they did what they did. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg [Broken City, Ted], who is deliciously good at playing dumb) has one ruling philosophy: “I believe in fitness.” But it turns out that dedicating oneself to achieving five percent bodyfat is not a path to wealth, nor does reaching said goal cause gold to rain down upon those hard muscles. Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson: Fast & Furious 6, G.I. Joe: Retaliation) believes in cocaine and Jesus, in roughly the same measures. They rope fellow Miami bodybuilder Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie: Gangster Squad, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) into a scheme to kidnap local businessman and all-around asshole Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub: Movie 43, Cars 2) and extort all his cash and property. They feel entitled to Kershaw’s riches because he’s not a nice guy and they are, dammit. Lugo empowers himself — via the brutally spot-on “motivational” horseshit of Ken Jeong’s (Despicable Me 2, The Hangover Part III) Johnny Wu — to act on what looks like, from our perspective, pathological jealousy and a dangerous addiction to consumerism… and yet, it’s barely an exaggeration of the cultural forces that are supposed to prompt us to “better” ourselves.

I didn’t feel any sympathy for these morons, except in the very loosest sense that should apply to all of us: no one should be infected with such pernicious lies about how the rich got rich and what it takes for us mere proles to join their ranks. And if the events depicted here happened way back in the boom years of the 1990s and have nary a whiff of today’s economic desperation and despair about them… well, there’s something of the cautionary tale about Pain and Gain anyway. When the language of self-help and religious righteousness and violence are all mixed up together? When people are told that they’re supposed to achieve the life of comfort and abundance dangled before them by Hollywood and Madison Avenue? When there is almost no realistic way for most people to make that happen? That “American dream” is a recipe for disaster.

Laugh till you cry.

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll, anti-abuse measure. If your comment is not spam, trollish, or abusive, it will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately. (Further comments may still be deleted if spammy, trollish, or abusive, and continued such behavior will get your account deleted and banned.)
notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Wed, Aug 28, 2013 2:18pm

I’ve been reading your reviews for over a decade, and this is one of your best. it’s done the impossible – convinced me to transfer some of my precious money into Bay’s bloated accounts. Wait… dear Zeus, what if his previous movies have also been over the top satires of the American Gospel of Adundance ? Will this result in a reevaluation of his oeuvre? Will prestigious university catalogs of 2040 include course titles like: “Pain, Gain, and The Bad Boys of the Rock: Michael Bay’s Transformative Effect on the Moral Underpinnings of the 2020’s”

Michael Bay has made a good movie. Nothing makes sense anymore – I am set adrift on a plane of limitless possibility. The universe has been baptized, words outstrip all meanings, what never was will be again, the glorious hour of rebirth is nigh!

I’m going to a matinee show though. Anything over ten bucks is just plain ridiculous.

reply to  amanohyo
Wed, Aug 28, 2013 6:28pm

I have seen this film and I have to say it’s worth seeing in a matinee due to the performances alone. I don’t think this is a GREAT movie: like it was said in the review, we still have a bunch of Bay’s uncomfortable quirks (especially the homophobic jokes: all revolving around events that were entirely fictional, unlike the vast majority of the crazy stuff in this movie), but it’s worth seeing because of the performances alone: stellar across the board, with Wahlberg and the Rock being the big standouts. Anyone who thought the Rock couldn’t cut it as an actor should see him in this. And plot wise this is a very engaging tale about a bunch of very stupid and evil people with warped interpretations of the American Dream that create a maelstrom of incompetence and suffering. Definitely worth checking out.

Taking your joke as a launching point, I think this movie is definitive proof that Bay is not some idiot who makes movies for other idiots but rather one who is clearly in on the joke…and doesn’t care, because going the idiot route is what rakes in the cash. Again, not saying he’s a secret genius (again, homophobic jokes) but he’s clearly self aware. And the performances in this movie prove that when he’s engaged he can get his actors to perform admirably. I am willing to bet actual money that when Transformers 4 comes out, the Mark Wahlberg that appears in that movie will be closer to The Happening Wahlberg than Academy Award Winner Wahlberg.

Wed, Jul 08, 2015 5:44pm

Excellent film. I really wish Bay taps into some more of that stuff with The 13 Hours, instead of making some gung-ho bullshit we’re all expecting him to make.