Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Pain & Gatsby

*Pain & Gain entered and left the theaters without much fanfare, but now that it's out on video (along with The Great Gatsby) I wanted to compare the two films.  Major SPOILERS for both films follow.

Something occurred to me as I was watching Pain & Gain on DVD: the Michael Bay-directed Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson movie is surprisingly comparable to The Great Gatsby.  I don't simply mean the Baz Luhrmann overly stylized Gatsby, either.  I mean the actual novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  (For my purposes, however, I will include that recent adaptation because it helps my argument.) 

Let's start with the American dream which Wahlberg's character, Daniel Lugo, talks about in the film (ironically telling a judge that there are no shortcuts to it).  Also, the tagline of Pain & Gain is "Their American Dream Is Bigger Than Yours."  In my initial review, I compared Pain & Gain to Scarface because of the drugs and blatant criminality of most of the characters along with the perversion of the American dream (and Lugo mentions Scarface as a personal hero).  I still think that comparison is apt since both stories are essentially about how wrong you can go in your pursuit of what you think the American dream is.  Gatsby fits in because that story is about the death of that dream. 

Jay Gatsby is a character that rises from nothing and makes a fortune through illegal means.  His pursuit goes beyond finance and into unreachable territory as he strives to recreate a past love with Daisy that has moved on.  He sees a green light as a metaphor for this unreachable dream.  His failure to reclaim what was once a beautiful moment shows that the American dream in general is unachievable when it becomes an idea rather than a tangible goal. 

Daniel Lugo is not after some lost love in Pain & Gain, but his downfall is just the same.  He simply holds money and status in such a high regard that he is incapable of sustaining it.  Becoming the man on the riding lawnmower was his tangible goal, but once he reached it, he realized it didn't really give him what he wanted: a feeling of legitimacy.  It seems cheap to make the comparison (but get used to it, this is going to be filled with cheap comparisons), but Lugo's green light was a riding lawnmower.  Once Gatsby had Daisy, he seemed to realize that the green light represented nothing now that he had seemed to achieve his dream.  As soon as Lugo, now Tom Lawn, gets on that lawnmower, he should have been content, instead he wanted more.  The lawnmower had become, simply, a lawnmower.

The similarities between Gatsby and Lugo don't end with the American dream.  Both characters get their money illegally, Gatsby through bootlegging and Lugo from fraud.  They both change their names when they gain their wealth.  James Gatz becomes Jay Gatsby.  Daniel Lugo becomes Tom Lawn.  Say what you will about Lugo's improvised name, at least it's vast departure from his real name, unlike Gatz to Gatsby...  They also seem to be equally charismatic.  Lugo may be much more obviously full of crap than Gatsby, but he seems to easily fool the people onscreen. 

Step aside, DiCaprio...let Marky Mark handle this.
If Lugo is Gatsby, then who is Nick Carraway?  Since Nick acts as the storyteller of Gatsby, this is difficult as nearly every single character in Pain & Gain serves as narrator at some point.  If you look to Nick as the moral compass of Gatsby, though, then I suppose Paul (Dwayne Johnson) fits best.  He appears to be the voice of reason early on ("You can't just kidnap a guy and take his stuff! That is so illegal!") and becomes corrupted by Lugo.  As an ex-con, he is much more susceptible to corruption than Carraway was, but that doesn't take away from the fact that he is somewhat seduced by Lugo's charm and friendship only to end up being used, just as Gatsby used Nick. 

This is where the film version of Gatsby helps out a bit more.  In that adaptation, Nick is telling the story from an asylum, apparently suffering a breakdown caused (at least partly) by alcohol addiction.  Paul is a recovering alcohol/drug addict who falls off the wagon because of his association with Lugo.  So Gatsby turned Nick into a drunk, and Lugo nudged Paul back into addiction. 

Paul is a much easier fit as Nick when you factor in his newly found faith.  His gullibility and well-meaning attitude is a dead ringer for Nick.  Religion does not play much of a factor in Gatsby, but Nick is certainly seen as the slightly innocent character among a crew of despicable people.  (Of course, he's telling the story, so he comes across as the good person.)  Paul seems that way, first.  And finally, there is one more side comparison with Paul as Nick.  In the novel, Nick has a drunken evening and at one point ends up bedside with a photographer.  It is not clearly explained, and some have speculated a homosexual interpretation to the passage.  Paul has his run-in with homosexuality, as well.  His priest/landlord hits on him, and Paul seems enthralled by all of the homosexual sex toys in the warehouse.  Sure, most of the stuff in Pain & Gain is played for juvenile homophobic laughs, but it makes sense on a story level when compared to Gatsby.
Yup, dead ringer for Tobey Maguire.

The wheels don't fall off of this comparison once you move past the similarities between the two main characters, but it definitely starts to get low on gas.  But I'll continue anyway as I did find a few interesting similarities.

Lugo as Gatsby and Paul as Nick keeps things nice and neat, but when trying to find other character crossovers, it gets messy.  I suppose Victor Kershaw could be Tom and his money could be Daisy since Lugo is at odds with him and tries to take away what is his.  And Myrtle could be the stripper that Lugo "gives" to Paul, but that doesn't really work since she should be with Victor in that comparison...and who's Wilson?  See what I mean?  But there is a clear commonality with cars.  In both stories, a character gets hit by a car near the end: Myrtle in Gatsby, and Lugo in Pain.  They are different circumstances and characters and all, but still...

The point of both Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, however, is quite clear and nearly identical.  Pain warns the audience of seeking the fast way to the dream and shows that the dream isn't what it's cracked up to be anyway.  Gatsby is about the death of the dream in very much the same way as Gatsby dies in his pursuit, and Nick is left jaded (and committed, in the movie). 

Putting an end to this rambling comparison, I just found it interesting that a film many people have found forgettable, pointless, offensive, or simply awful can quite easily be compared to what some call the great American novel.  Both Pain & Gain and the recent adaptation of The Great Gatsby nearly stylize the point out of each story, but it's still there.  And while Pain & Gain will never be considered a great work of art, at the very least Michael Bay's latest deserves a second look, which is more than can be said about his Transformers series.

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