Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Michael Bay's Surprising and Darkly Funny Return to the 90s

Directed by Michael Bay, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, starring Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, Dwayne Johnson, Ed Harris, and Tony Shalhoub - Rated R

This is a comedy the Kurgan would like, which says all kinds of messed up things about me...
It’s been a long time since director Michael Bay made a film that didn’t involve giant fighting robots, and it’s about time. Nothing against the Transformers movies, but I’ve always felt that Bay could’ve stopped after the first film and just produced the next few. Instead Bay stayed on for the whole trilogy, and he’s even starting up a new Transformers movie for his next directing job. So Pain & Gain, unfortunately, is only a pit stop for Bay between robot movies.

I say “unfortunately” because Pain & Gain is an entertaining and interesting film from a director who had become quite predictable over the years, and it would be nice if this became the norm for Bay. The film, based on one of those true stories that prove reality is indeed stranger than fiction, is dark comedy at its best: disturbing.

Reviewing a comedy is tricky, and I’ve actually come to the point that I will not even review most comedies because it’s all about the viewer’s sense of humor. But Pain & Gain is more than just a comedy. The true story angle sets it apart.

Pain & Gain is based on the series of articles of the same name written by Miami Times reporter Pete Collins. Of course, true stories get changed as characters are merged, dates change, and events are altered. But screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely stay surprisingly faithful to the basic outline of the events. If you’re a stickler for the details, just read the articles online; it’s a fascinating read and, at times, even crazier than the movie’s version of events.

The too crazy to believe true story is a very dark, twisted series of events. (Stop reading now if you don’t want the story slightly spoiled.) In the mid-90s a personal trainer/scam artist named Daniel Lugo, along with assorted friends and acquaintances, kidnapped a local Miami businessman and forced him to sign over all of his wealth. Emboldened by this first “success” the group tries again with disastrous results. That doesn’t sound all that crazy until you come across the finer points in the story. Some of the actions of the people involved defy belief. Police officers ignore blatant evidence of the kidnapping, a man survives being blown up and ran over, body parts are barbecued out in the open, etc. And that’s all stuff that actually happened. Toss in some movie-only craziness involving a sex toy warehouse, cocaine, and a severed toe and you’re in for some wacky moments.

That could be a problem for some viewers. Not only is this a grisly story, but it’s also told for laughs. Actual people died. When you keep that in mind, it’s hard to laugh. Maybe I’m a terrible person, but I found Pain & Gain quite funny, even more so as things got dark and twisted in the end. As a dark comedy, this film is a success…for people with my sense of humor, anyway. That said, dark comedies are extremely hit and miss depending on the viewer, so I can understand why some people might hate it.

It might also rub people the wrong way because Daniel Lugo, played by Mark Wahlberg, is treated almost like the hero of the film. He’s a guy who just wants the American dream, which, to him, means being buff and rich. He has the buff part down, but the rich part is something he has to take. I did have issues with this guy being treated as the protagonist at first. Then I remembered Scarface and many other gangster films in which the audience is kind of expected to root for the “bad guy.” It’s just that this bad guy is based on a real terrible person. The American dream aspect of the movie makes up for that, however. Scarface spawned an entire subculture that glorifies a twisted idea of the American dream. To be fair, that’s not the point of Scarface, but many fans of that film have failed to notice. With Pain & Gain, there is no mistaking that Daniel Lugo is an idiot and someone to be ridiculed. He is a sociopath whose actions make clear that the American dream can be quite dangerous if interpreted a certain way. Will everyone walk away from the film with that message? No, but I doubt that you’ll hear people quoting Lugo as often as people quote Tony Montana.

Daniel Lugo may not go down as one of cinema’s great antiheros, but that doesn’t mean Wahlberg does a bad job. He’s perfect for the role of a muscle-bound optimist. He carries the film with ease, but his cohorts provide the most fun. Anthony Mackie cracked me up constantly with his fast rants about getting buff. And Dwayne Johnson was the best part of the film because of his meltdown in the second half. He seems to be in a completely different movie than the rest of the cast the last hour, and it’s hilarious. The rest of the cast is superb, as well, with Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub, Rob Corddry, and Rebel Wilson making appearances. Even Ken Jeong, who I find nearly unbearable these days, had me laughing as an obnoxious self-help guru.

Add Michael Bay’s direction to these proceedings and you’re left with the most surprisingly enjoyable film of the year thus far. Bay could’ve destroyed this movie easily if he had turned it into an action fest, but he didn’t. Instead, he basically made his version of Tony Scott’s Domino. The similarities between the two films are hard to ignore. Both are based on unbelievable true stories in the mid-90s and are helmed by directors who often let style get in the way of substance. Bay has made the better film because Pain & Gain takes the more comedic tone. Domino attempted to be relatively serious, and it was all too crazy to care that much about. Pain & Gain has a story that could be taken very seriously, but it would be very hard not to laugh at some of the true moments. Thankfully, Bay and company embraced that. Does he still whip the camera around too often and employ too much slow-mo? Yeah, but trust me, the action and plot are much easier to follow in this film than in his previous Transformers work.

Despite my eventual enjoyment, I was on the fence about Pain & Gain the first hour or so. There were far too many characters with voice-over. The anachronistic bits, like the Taco Bell box, a wireless videogame controller, etc. took me out of it. It just seemed to be a mess of a film. Somehow in that last hour it all made sense. It’s still a mess of a film, but the characters are train-wrecks, so how could the plot not get messy? The true story is convoluted, so why wouldn’t the movie be as well? The messiness of it is what got me laughing consistently by the end of the film. It was equal parts hilarity and befuddlement. That’s entertainment to me. Just try not to dwell on the fact that most of the stuff in this movie actually happened.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
While I am quite tired of Bay's now obligatory camera-doing-a-360-through-two-rooms gimmick, I laughed a lot at the absurdity of the two vastly different actions taking place.  On one side, Marky Mark is killing a guy.  On the other, The Rock is putting on a push-up display while C&C Music Factory blares. 
Speaking of The Rock, shouldn't he have been limping a bit more since he was missing a toe?  Or is coke that powerful?  Or is it simply that The Rock is that powerful?
The anachronisms bothered me, but I still dug some of the 90s elements of the movie.  The car phones, the above-mentioned music, etc.  Although, for the most part, this film felt like it took place in present day. 

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