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.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"Elysium" and "Beowulf": An Unlikely Comparison

Okay, obviously I have been less than inspired lately as this is my first post in over a month.  I've still been watching movies and stuff, but nothing has really excited me all that much.  Also, school has begun so I'm much more focused on teaching than writing about movies.  Teaching literature does allow me to think about movies in a different light, which means that I have had a little inspiration for writing something about Elysium.  This is not a review.  I'll still write a lengthy review here and there, but only if the movie makes me think and stays with me after watching it.  Unfortunately, Elysium didn't stick with me all that much.  So I'll start off with a very short opinion about the film itself, then go into a comparison to the epic poem Beowulf.  This is where the teaching literature stuff comes in handy.  I gave my seniors a few writing assignment options after they finished the poem, one of which asking them to compare it to the hero's journey of a modern action film.  I try to complete all the assignments I dish out (partly to see if it works as an assignment and partly to see if I can come up with anything good), and this is my entry.
Short Review
I loved District 9.  I liked Elysium.  There are some great moments and Matt Damon makes for a good hero (Sharlto Copley makes for an even better [and crazed] villain).  I felt like I was watching two films shoehorned together, though.  I just thought things started moving by too fast, and it became too simple.  I suppose District 9 ends the same way, but I felt more connected to that world and that character than I did to Matt Damon's character.  Overall, a fine sci-fi film with some commentary on health care and whatnot that entertains, but doesn't really resonate. 
*I'll be SPOILING the crap out of Elysium from here on out...


Beowulf Comparison
Beowulf can be compared to pretty much every action movie, so let’s look at a recent one: Elysium.  In Elysium, Matt Damon does not begin as a powerful man.  In fact, he seems weaker than most, accepting a low-key life of straight work after a career in theft.  Once his death becomes imminent, however, he is literally upgraded to badass Beowulf status.  Damon is outfitted with an exoskeleton that gives him much needed superior strength to get through his final days.  This essentially turns him into that unique physical hero that Beowulf was. 
"I always thought Matt Damon was kind of a Streisand..."
But he look's like he take on about nine giant sea-beasts
with that exo-skeleton on.
In Beowulf, Grendel and his/its mother represented pure evil, literally crawling out of some kind of primordial evil slime to bring death and misery to Earth.  The ultra-rich floating utopia of Elysium represents that pure evil in the world of the film because they have the ability to provide much-needed cheap health care, but simply choose not to.  This is an interesting contrast to the epic poem because the high-low dynamic has been reversed.  The bright, shining example of all that is good in Beowulf, Heorot, is at the top of a hill while Grendel and his mom are down in the muck.  Of course, Earth would be considered the muck in Elysium, but it is not filled with pure evil.  Instead, the innocent and the good live in this dirty, lower level while the truly evil spend their time on top of the hill.  Basically, things have been reversed and Matt Damon must right these wrongs, with a little help, of course.
Which brings me to why Damon can’t be compared to Beowulf completely as a character.  Yes, he has the exoskeleton, but he needs help.  He needs a lot of help, actually.  Damon doesn’t really know how all the gizmos work, so he’s dependent on the criminal element to help him with his quest.  Without Spider, Damon would fail completely.  This is the opposite of Beowulf, a superhuman who not only doesn’t need weapons to defeat Grendel, but he doesn’t really need his men, either. 

There are quite a few similarities, however, when you consider Kruger to be the Grendel of Elysium.  If there was a character that was meant to be seen as true, violent evil, it would be Kruger.  His handler (symbolic mother) Jodie Foster is certainly just as evil, but in a more political way.  Kruger enjoys killing and getting his hands dirty.  So, of course, Damon must stop him.  When they finally battle it out to the death, Damon must rip off Kruger’s exoskeleton, rendering him much less harmful.  This is the equivalent of ripping off Grendel’s arm.  Beowulf couldn’t leave it at just that, and, in the poem, eventually tracked Grendel down and finished the job by cutting off his head.  Damon doesn’t decapitate Kruger, but he does place a grenade on him to make sure Kruger stays dead. 
Kruger as Grendel works, but Foster as Grendel’s mother is a bit lacking.  She is certainly the more dangerous of the two for most of the film, but her end is anti-climactic to say the least.  Damon does not track her down and defeat her with some magical weapon.  Instead, her own (symbolic) child stabs her with a shard of glass, and she pretty much accepts death.  Damon doesn’t really have all that much to do with her death.  I found this to be unique, but unsatisfying, and it also messes up this comparison.  The best connection I can make to this is the idea of Grendel having mommy issues (as he does in John Gardner’s novel from Grendel’s perspective, Grendel).  Still, Grendel killing his mother does not literally suit this comparison, which is unfortunate.

...and his mother.
Moving beyond Grendel and his mother, Beowulf eventually fights a dragon, which leads to his death.  Of course, there is no dragon in Elysium, but Damon’s final fight ends in his death, as well.  You have to get pretty symbolic here, but you could consider the system that keeps millions of people sick to be the dragon.  It works quite well when you factor in the dragon hoarding a treasure in Beowulf.  The dragon of Elysium is guarding the portable med-pods, which is certainly the most valuable treasure in the world of the film.  This is also where Spider’s help makes Damon more like Beowulf.  Sure, Beowulf didn’t need help taking out Grendel and his mother, but when it came to the dragon, he needed the help of a lone warrior, Wiglaf.  Everyone else had run away scared, only Wiglaf remained to help and to ensure Beowulf’s final wishes were fulfilled.  Spider is certainly the Wiglaf to Damon’s Beowulf. 
Is Elysium a full-on adaptation of Beowulf?  Of course not, but even the adaptations of Beowulf aren’t all that faithful (most adaptations try to add dramatic moments that didn’t necessarily exist in the poem).  It's safe to say that this comparison is not a stretch, though.  It just goes to show that the earliest hero quest stories out there still live on in our modern storytelling.