Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pain & Gain (2013) – Review

Review: Pain & Gain is entertaining, yes, but also stylistically vulgar. The film is about Daniel Lugo, a personal trainer and amateur body builder, who aspires for more out of life, but instead of working hard he decides to kidnap one of his wealthy clients and force him to give up everything he owns. To do this, Lugo enlists two of his bodybuilder friends Adrian Doorbal and Paul Doyle.

In its best moments Pain & Gain is very entertaining and very funny, playing off the sheer hilarity of the ridiculousness of this true story and the odd characters in it. But that said, the film is not nearly as entertaining or funny as director Michael Bay seems to think it is, which leaves it over-long and ultimately a little tiresome.

Its main problem comes from Bay’s pacing and the story’s narrative structure. The first act shows Lugo in his depressed, poverty stricken natural state, which sets the table for why he would even aspire to such a crime in the first place. Bay also extensively uses voiceover narration to divulge background and character drama in an attempt to flesh out his characters to a greater extent than what the visuals offer, and it works well enough. Bay tries to infuse the voiceover narration with comedy as well. The second act features Lugo and company carrying out the crime and living off their spoils. And the third act is their downfall – so, in many ways this is structured a bit like a gangster film. The skeleton of the narrative structure works well and features an involving story, but Bay seems to think his material is brilliantly funny (and in moments, thanks to the fun performances, it is) so he tries to pack in as many comedic beats as he can, somewhat overloading scenes, resulting in the whole ridiculous tone becoming tired during the latter half of the second act.

Suddenly, without the comedy playing quite as well, the film starts to feel slow – because the narrative is not structured as a comedy, but rather as a character based crime drama. Yet, Bay wants the film to play as a comedy – specifically he wants the characters to be complete idiots who do things so that the audience can laugh at them. But, when the joke is not funny anymore where does that leave the narrative? Bay does a great job with making everything funny and entertaining in the beginning, but once the characters are set up and the narrative is in motion Bay’s pacing just does not work anymore because the storytelling is not efficient enough. Again, this is really a comedy, but it is structured and stylized as a crime drama and this disconnect hurts the film in the second half.

Stylistically, Pain & Gain sort of both embraces and denounces excess in American culture. It is odd because Bay seems to want the audience to relate to his characters and even feel sympathetic towards them, and he succeeds. The audience wants Lugo and company to get away with their crimes and likes them, which is ludicrous because the characters are completely unlikable.  Yet Bay completely sets them up to looks like total buffoons constantly, which undermines any connection that the viewer might have formed with the characters. Lugo is the epitome of someone who wants everything handed to them solely because they deserve it. He idolizes characters from gangster films who take what they want (never learning the lesson that they all lose in the end). He wants all the excesses that he sees around him – which are a lot as the film takes place in Miami – but does not want to earn anything; he just wants to have it now and to do that he must take it from someone who already has it.

The narrative suggests that being caught up in this sort of excess striving lifestyle does not work in the long run (like gangster films, Lugo burns brightly but for a moment and pays a big price for it). Yet, somewhat contradictory, Bay’s aesthetic style for the film is nothing but excess, almost to a vulgar level. It seems to celebrate and revel in the world of fast cars, hot women with big boobs, drugs, strip clubs, big houses on the water (even the retired police detective lives right on the water), and so on. It is as if Bay is championing Lugo and his aspirations, while also condemning him (but only because of his stupidity in the manner by which he carried out his crime). All these contradictions work against the film and the viewer’s enjoyment of it.

However, despite the issues with the film, Pain & Gain is at times very funny and quite enthralling. It just asks that the viewer leave behind their own morality and fully embrace the oversexed, bizarre, and comically ridiculous characters and world that Bay presents.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Michael Bay often makes mind-numbingly noisy and blatantly stupid films – but, he also directs films with a lot of energy and style. When it works, they make for an escapist spectacle entertainment. Pain & Gain falls into that category (and it is probably his best film since his first: Bad Boys – the only other Bay film to cost under twenty-five million), but still feels like it could have been better.

Composer Steve Jablonsky creates a decent score for the film, but it does not really stand out. The best musical moments come from the found music (like Gangsta’s Paradise). Visually, however, the film is very compelling, inviting the viewer into a word of excess juxtaposed with the crumbling sunbaked ghetto that surrounds it, looking on in envy. Ben Seresin’s cinematography and Jeffrey Beecroft’s production design seem to make a clear distinction between the world Lugo lives in and the one he aspires to be a part of, which in turn leads to the audience actually getting behind him as a character. They see his world – decrepit and sun saturated – and then see the nice part of Miami were his victim lives and it is beautiful. In a crazy way, it sort of plays into the class warfare that is quietly gathering steam in America (and around the world).

The characters in the film are slightly one dimensional, as Bay basically just parades them around to be laughed at (which is probably why he added so much internal character stuff in the voiceover narration). The performances, though, are very fun, with the actors giving themselves completely over to the ridiculousness.  Ken Jeong is very funny in a cameo role. Rebel Wilson, Bar Paly, and especially Tony Shalhoub are all good in support and bring some good humor with their performances. The leads, however, make the film. Anthony Mackie is fantastic. He plays Adrian in a much more grounded place, and yet is just as funny as the other two. Dwayne Johnson commits completely to his role as Paul, a cartoonish moron. He is funny, and thus serves his role, but is completely void of real relatable character moments. Mark Wahlberg, like Mackie, is very good as Lugo. His character is the most relatable and is given the most character moments, which he utilizes well. The audience should not like him, and yet they sort of do.

Summary & score: Pain & Gain is an extravaganza of ridiculousness – fun for a while, but eventually it wears thin as it goes on too long. 6/10

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