The American Dream is far from a new concept. The notion that perseverance, hard work, and determination can lead to success has been a mainstay in American culture for almost a century now. It’s an idea that remains ingrained in our brains and continues to be an ideal for people to strive for in our ever-changing world. However, while the American Dream is meant to inspire and encourage, that doesn’t stop misguided people from skewing and misunderstanding its intentions, from using the American Dream as justification for horrendous actions. Such people are the focus of Michael Bay’s new film, Pain & Gain, the true story of three bodybuilders who resort to kidnapping and extortion in order to make it big in the good ole’ U.S.of.A. While the story at the core of the film is quite fascinating, it unfortunately falls into the hands of Michael Bay, famous for his explosion-filled, intellect-free Transformers franchise (don’t get me wrong I enjoy the Transformer films, well the first one anyway, but they aren’t exactly highbrow stuff). Rather than give the story the weight and seriousness it deserves, Bay instead is content to make a cartoony film that suffers from his typical excessive direction, an uneven tone, and a bloated running time.
The minute you’ve sat in your seat and the film begins to play on the silver screen ahead of you, it’s obvious that you’ve walked into a Michael Bay film. As has come to be expected whenever Bay releases a new film, the movie is brimming with gorgeous ladies strutting around pools in skimpy bikinis, polished and glimmering sports cars, and shirtless muscular men. Not to mention the plethora of quick cuts and his reliance on juvenile humor as comedic relief. Surprisingly though, Bay manages to show restraint and not blow up every truck on screen. In fact, there might not be a single explosion in the entire film, as hard as that is to believe. However, if Pain & Gain is Bay at his most restrained then the films serves as further proof that Bay’s direction is too zealous for his own good.
Watching the film I couldn’t help but wonder if Bay suffers from ADHD because he simply cannot set the camera down. Almost every shot in the film is some sort of elaborate tracking shot, or a 360 degree StediCam shot around two characters heads, or even shots that go an entire lap around a room, entering and exiting through a bullet-hole in the glass. It’s almost as if he has a grudge against putting down the camera and letting the shot breath, or as if he didn’t have faith in his actors or the script and tried to distract the audience with intricate camera movements. No matter the explanation, the result remains the same and the results aren’t great.
However, Pain & Gain’s biggest issue is its uneven tone and the way in which Bay chooses to tell this true story. For the first half or so of the film Bay seems to have crafted a light and funny crime story about a few well meaning, bumbling idiots who get in way over their heads. After about an hour, though, the movie takes a ninety-degree turn into some extremely dark territory involving murder and the disposing of bodies. It’s an extremely sudden change that makes you realize that this true story is much more than a comedic crime caper – it’s a serious story about one man’s complete dedication towards achieving the American Dream, a man who is so determined to be rich and successful that he’s willing to do anything to attain his goal. It seems odd that Bay would take such a dark story and try and ring out as many laughs from it as possible, simply because the main characters are pretty stupid. Don’t get me wrong, the story is inherently funny, but the events it depicts are serious enough to warrant a more dramatic approach to the material. Had this script fallen into a more competent director’s hands we may have been graced with a grim meditation on the American Dream and the lengths people go to make it big. We could have been privy to a depiction of the dark underbelly of the American Dream and those it negatively influences. Instead, we’re left with a Michael Bay film that can’t decide whether it wants to be a comedy about criminals or a comedic crime story.
In the end, Pain & Gain is an unfortunate disappointment. Hopes were high that this would be a return to form for Bay, that a smaller, more contained story may reel in some of Bay’s more excessive directorial choices but these hopes proved false. While the film is far from bad – it contains some memorable performances from Mark Whalberg, The Rock, and Anthony Mackie – and is consistently entertaining, its faults constantly outweigh its merits. The film is much longer than it needs to be, running at almost two hours and fifteen minutes, and Michael Bay simply was the wrong choice to tell this story. It’s a shallow film that spends more time worrying about how good it looks rather than the story it’s trying to tell. It’s a shame, because underneath all of Bay’s spinning shots and dick jokes there’s a really great story waiting for a serious director to give it the treatment it deserves.
Review by James Hausman