Not long after Paul Verhoeven directed Showgirls (1995), French filmmaker Jacques Rivette told an interviewer the movie was about “surviving in a world populated by assholes.” I thought of this line often while watching Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, which opened last week and is currently the number one box office attraction in the U.S. Nearly all the principal characters are loud, arrogant, aggressive, and materialistic. Even the people victimized by the movie’s thuggish protagonists—a trio of Miami bodybuilders played by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie—tend to be assholes themselves.
Pain & Gain argues that the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has been perverted to justify literally anything that will help you accrue privilege and material wealth and lord them over everyone else. Bay—director of such megamovies as Bad Boys (1995), Armageddon (1998), Pearl Harbor (2001), and Transformers (2007)—is up front about this: throughout the movie Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) invokes the American dream to excuse everything from lying to murder. In one of the movie’s running gags, he defines any form of self-improvement with the cliches of his vocation. “America began as a scrawny collection of colonies,” he says in his opening voice-over narration, “and became the toughest, hardest-pumping country in the world!”
Acting on this logic, Lugo kidnaps a millionaire (Tony Shalhoub) and tortures him until he signs away his entire fortune. In the tradition of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (which is evoked in a number of ways, most notably in the multiple first-person narrators), Pain & Gain takes an ambivalent stance toward Lugo and his moronic accomplices, Doyle (Johnson) and Doorbal (Mackie). On one hand, they’re clearly monsters, displaying little remorse for what they do; on the other, they’re so stupid that they often register as pitiful (if never quite pitiable), lacking the sophistication to recognize their own moral bankruptcy. These men have internalized all too well the distorted Horatio Alger ethic they see all around them.
Models of hollow success are everywhere in the movie’s vision of Miami. In addition to the kidnapped millionaire (a stereotypically mean-spirited Jew), the supporting characters include the CEO of a phone sex company, introduced as “the third richest man in Dade County”; a high-profile stripper with delusions of becoming a movie star; the greedy manager of Lugo’s gym, whom Lugo barely has to cajole into committing a serious act of fraud; and a condescending motivational speaker named Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), whose TV ads appear throughout the film like a running commentary. In fact Lugo turns to violent crime after attending one of Wu’s seminars. “There are two kinds of people in America: doers and don’t-ers,” Wu barks. His simplistic advice—”Do be a doer; don’t be a don’t-er!”—becomes Lugo’s new mantra.
None of this is particularly subtle, but then Bay has never been known for his subtlety. He directed lots of TV commercials before graduating to feature films, and his visual style is defined by near-constant sensory stimulation. He favors blunt imagery, hyperactive editing, loud sound effects, and emphatic lighting that instructs the viewer exactly where to look. One of his favorite devices is cutting from one mobile shot to another, with the direction of the camera movement shifting drastically. His approach can be disorienting and, for some viewers, insulting. The most frequent criticism of his work is that it’s all surface, and he’s practically encouraged this interpretation with his Transformers franchise, inspired by a line of toys.
Pain & Gain may seem like a subversion of the values his other movies epitomize, but it’s still highly characteristic. Bay cuts frenetically, punctuating the dialogue with slow-motion shots, extreme low-angle compositions, and unmotivated tracking. His style is as shrill as ever, yet it doesn’t seem quite so arbitrary here; in fact it often feels like a suitable analogue to the characters’ superficial natures.
More to the point, do characters like these deserve a more serious approach? Nearly everyone in Pain & Gain defines success through garish materialism and personal superiority, paying lip service to positive values as an excuse to justify their base desires. Lugo claims he wants to “give back to the community” once he makes his fortune, but after he takes over the millionaire’s mansion, his only methods of giving back are bullying neighbor kids into working out and commanding a militaristic neighborhood watch program. By comparison Doyle is more sympathetic: a former drug addict who found Christianity in jail, he uses his faith to convince himself he’s a good person no matter how much wrong he does (“God gave me a gift of knocking people the fuck out!”).
Bay often invites contempt for his characters, but his use of that contempt as a satirical device is inconsistent. Throughout the movie he’ll reverse our feelings toward a loathsome character by trotting out a stock figure who’s even more disgusting. When Lugo is outlining his pathetic American dream in voice-over, Bay shows him performing some of his more demeaning chores at the gym where he works. “I offered free body waxing to every new client,” he explains, and Bay cuts to the bushy inner thighs of a fat woman in a bikini. When the three kidnappers leave their victim for dead and he winds up in the ICU, Bay gives him a whiny, obese roommate who shits all over their shared bathroom. The police detective who questions the millionaire is another caricature, a smug, oafish functionary with a ridiculous Afro.
Details like these feel misanthropic, which makes the director’s perspective difficult to distinguish from that of his characters. But as part of his TV commercial aesthetic, they don’t feel out of place. Lugo and his compatriots are too blinkered to consider transcending the culture of garbage that spawned them; they just want to sit on top of the trash heap. His take on America is so convincing that the one moral character—a retired cop (Ed Harris) who takes up Shalhoub’s case—seems to come out of an entirely different movie. For better and for worse, Bay immerses us in the setting without suggesting any sort of cultural alternative; he has plenty to say about a world populated by assholes but offers few ideas on how to survive it.