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Review: Pain & Gain (2013)

Pain & Gain (2013)

Directed by: Michael Bay

Premise: Based on a true story, a group of body builders kidnap a wealthy businessman and extort him.

What Works: Some stories require the right filmmaker to tell them. When the right subject is paired with its ideal storyteller, the result can be a piece of cinematic synergy: Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho, Steven Spielberg and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Martin Scorsese and Raging Bull, David Fincher and Zodiac. Pain & Gain may not belong in quite the same category as those pictures but it is the perfect project for director Michael Bay. Bay’s filmmaking style has been rightly described as pornographic; a veteran of music videos and car commercials, Bay’s feature films like Bad Boys and Transformers are characterized by pretension, hyperactive camera movement, rapid cutting, and above all a scopophilic quality in which cars, military hardware, and human bodies are all turned into objects to be leered at and blown up. Those same qualities are intact in Pain & Gain but this picture requires Michael Bay to use the very styles that made him persona non grata among film critics and employ them in a story where these styles become at least ironic if not outright parody. Pain & Gain tells the story of three Florida-based body builders who tire of their middling lifestyles and decide to do something about it by kidnaping a businessman and intimidating him into signing over his assets. On that outline the film sounds like a fairly typical heist movie but Pain & Gain has got much more going for it. This is a story about the American dream gone wrong and the filmmakers have a laugh while also providing incisive social satire. In that respect, Pain & Gain has less in common with Michael Bay’s action pictures than it does with I Love You, Phillip Morris and Fight Club. It has that same kind of troubled relationship with masculinity and capitalism and it plays with the audience’s desires and expectations. This is where Michael Bay’s filmmaking style comes into play. His work has often been about creating male fantasies on screen but when his usual techniques are engaged in Pain & Gain they end up highlighting the absurd and superficial nature of the main characters. The relationship between the audience and the protagonists of Pain & Gain is one of the exceptional elements of this movie. Comedies often keep their characters at arm’s length in order to hold them to ridicule. This movie embraces its characters in much the same way that Scarface allowed for empathy with a gangster. Ultimately, Pain & Gain holds up these fools not as strange people who are separate from the audience; they are the audience.

What Doesn’t: Pain & Gain hits its peak in the middle of the film when the body builders kidnap the businessman and the dramatic thrust of the movie idles for much of its second half. This is often the problem in pictures like this; when the main characters get what they want the story has to restart in the middle of the movie. That becomes a problem for Pain & Gain since the second half of the story is less compelling than the first. What befalls the main characters is a fairly predictable series of sins involving false pride and overindulgence that inevitably lead to their downfall. Anyone who has seen a heist film or an addiction story will be able to map out where this is going. Like other Michael Bay productions, there is nothing about Pain & Gain that is subtle and the filmmakers clobber the audience over the head with the social commentary. The filmmaking style befits the themes and characters of this story but because it runs a little too long it’s all a bit overwrought by the end.

Bottom Line: In the past year there has been a number of movies with a scabrous take on contemporary culture, including God Bless America, King Kelly, and Spring Breakers. Pain & Gain is not a classic but it is better than most of the films in this trend and it may be Michael Bay’s best work.

Episode: #437 (May 5, 2013)