Monday, May 6, 2013

The Cinema File #170: “Pain And Gain” Review

When I reviewed the film Bernie, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I noted the somewhat uncomfortable approach of treating a convicted and confessed murderer so sympathetically, and his victim so unsympathetically. Though I would say it should ultimately be forgiven, since the point is to place the audience in the same position as the main character's friends and neighbors, I was still surprised that there wasn't more controversy surrounding the film. I am in no way surprised that the similar approach seen in the new film Pain And Gain has met with more controversy than Bernie ever did, and I suspect that the fact that it was made by critical pariah Michael Bay and not indie darling Richard Linklater might have something to do with that. Well, count me as one perennial Bay-hater who was pleasantly surprised by what is easily his best film, and one of his few truly great ones.

Pain And Gain is the true to life story of the Sun Gym Gang, a trio of lunk headed bodybuilders who hatch a zany scheme to kidnap and extort a sleazy millionaire out of all of his possessions, a plan which predictably spirals out of control as their limited intellects get the better of them. Of course, I say they were a trio, but already we've run into a problem with the comparison between real life events and dramatic adaptations, as the actual gang was apparently much larger, with certain characters being composites or completely eliminated. These incidental changes to the true story might make the constant humorous reminders that this is a true story come off as a bit insulting, but ultimately even a cursory degree of research will most likely lead many to be surprised by just how accurate this outrageous narrative really is.

The differences, though no doubt very important to the surviving victims, are incidental to the casual viewer's enjoyment of the film, which is almost instantly delightful and consistently entertaining despite how dark you know the story will eventually get. That increasingly macabre tone might be the film's one real drawback, as the escalation of violence and carnage in the second half does make things go a bit off the rails. My immediate comparison is Peter Berg's Very Bad Things, another film I enjoyed, despite it reaching a point of diminishing returns as the forced bad taste becomes overwhelming. By the end of Pain and Gain, the unraveling of the plot almost mirrors the unraveling of the crime, but by that point the ride has been so crazy and fun that you don't much care that it almost crashed.

I often find that it takes a very smart writer to do very dumb characters well, and that skill is especially evident in this movie. There are so many classic lines littered throughout that I'll be quoting for the next few weeks at least, and the absurdity of all of this is perfectly executed in the hands of Bay, whose characteristic juvenile excess is the perfect fit for this story of exaggerated man children out of their element and in over their heads. This isn't just a great movie that happens to be directed by Michael Bay. This is a movie that is great because it is directed by Michael Bay, which is something I had all but given up any hope of seeing since The Rock. This movie is so good that despite my general hatred of narration in movies, this one employs not one but six narrators, and I couldn't care less.

As for the controversy, much like with Bernie, I think its pretty overblown. I never really sympathized with any of these characters, nor did I feel that the movie really wanted me to, which is especially ironic considering Bay's well known penchant for expecting his audience to like the most annoying and stupid characters in so many of his other movies. Moments that in any other movie would serve to make us like the main characters and support their goals are clearly satirical and undercut for a joke every time, and in the end, the only people who will reflexively identify with this group of idiots are people as stupid as they are. Thankfully, for the first time in a long time, this director of so many big budget travesties doesn't cater to that audience, and instead very nearly comes to the point of deconstructing it, pillorying the kind of macho unexamined Americana that has for so long been his bread and butter. The result is not only the best and bravest Michael Bay film to date, but one of the most fun wide release movies of 2013 so far. 
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