Yet, his nine films as director have grossed nearly $2 billion in North America alone. I don’t know a single Bay apologist who will defend Transformers 2 as anything other than misogynistic, racist swill, and that thing made $900 million worldwide. I don’t know if there’s ever been a filmmaker where there’s been such a wide gap in the perceived quality of his work and the mass success of it.
It’s weird because Bay is very clearly talented. Even a movie as genuinely misguided as Pearl Harbor has some really spectacular images in it. It’s always seemed like Bay was using his gifts and only playing to the cheap seats, aiming everything at the lowest possible common denominator to gain the largest audience. He was aiming for low hanging fruit. His films view women as sex objects, play comedy so broadly it makes Miley Cyrus cringe, and portray race like Mel Brooks would if Mel Brooks wasn’t a satirist. Sometimes, I think Bay has seen Blazing Saddles and not realized it’s making fun of racist attitudes. The two racist robots in Transformers 2 are one of the most jaw-dropping things I’ve seen in a contemporary studio picture.
Comments Bay has made in public interviews would indicate he doesn’t even care for the films he’s making. In an interview, he sort of apologized this week for Armageddon. He expressed reluctance about doing another giant robot movie, and yet he’s signed on for Transformers 4. Despite being a tired punchline for bad and excessive moviemaking, Michael Bay had always seemed resigned to his place in the world and his undeniable commercial success.
Pain and Gain is a film Michael Bay actually wanted to make. He optioned the rights to a series of articles that appeared in the Miami New Times in 1999. I’ve read that Bay is a big Coen Brothers fan, that’s why he’s continually raided their casts for his actors (like John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, and Tony Shaloub, who appears here). In fact, Pain and Gain bears a lot of plot points with Fargo as it deals with a band of inept criminals who are in way over their heads. But, while Fargo is a masterpiece of comic tone, this is much more like Burn After Reading. Take that however you will.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a trainer at a Miami area gym. Like many modern-day Americans, Lugo believes in instant gratification, that his birthright as an American should have paid off in being handsomely wealthy. After being influenced by a creepy motivational speaker, Lugo decides to change his lot. He convinces two other idiots from the gym (Anthony Mackie as a steroid-addled trainer and Dwayne Johnson as an ex-con, ex-junkie who’s found Jesus in prison) to kidnap Victor Kershaw, a sleazy South Florida businessman. Like William H. Macy in Fargo, these three dopes plan to use a kidnapping as a source of extortion. Their plan is simple, nab Kershaw and then torture him until he signs over all his assets. The idea is Kershaw will never know their actual identities. What could possibly go wrong?
It turns out a lot. Before long, things have spun wildly out of control.
Fans of Bay’s Bad Boys II (also South Florida set) will likely have fun with the mayhem on display here. Fans of exploding heads should have a good time, as well. It’s not as if Fargo isn’t bloody as hell. (“And, I suppose that’s your accomplice there in the wood chipper?”) It’s that the violence is used as commentary and black humor. Pain and Gain gives us extreme violence as slapstick comedy. It’s not quite the same thing. The ineptitude of these guys is almost sitcommy, even though we’re reminded most of it actually happened. It’s like Grand Theft Auto crossed with I Love Lucy.
Pain and Gain is definitely a step up in quality for Bay, but it’s ultimately a mixed bag as he just can’t keep all of his worst tendencies in check. The three leads are all quite good. Wahlberg is doing very similar work to what he did in The Departed and opposite Will Farrell in The Other Guys. He’s quite funny is a super-serious way. I’ve never understood why Anthony Mackie didn’t get the same Hurt Locker bump that Jeremy Renner got, but he’s pretty funny here, as well, while given not as much to do. The best work comes from Johnson, The Rock himself. I loved his persona as a wrestler since the '90s, but he’s never been as good as he is here. People who joke that he can’t act clearly aren’t paying attention. Ed Harris (a Bay regular) is great as a private detective.
Unfortunately, comedy sledgehammers Ken Jeong and Rebel Wilson show up. Motivational speakers are ripe for satire, but Jeong is so over the top that there’s no connection to reality, and unreality is never funny. Wilson isn’t as off-putting as she was in Pitch Perfect or at that disaster that was the MTV Movie Awards. She just pushes too hard.
And then, there’s the matter of the voiceover. I tend to really dislike voiceover narration unless it’s used in very specific, nearly ironic ways. GoodFellas comes to mind as an example of it being used well, particularly as we hear Karen Hill talk about the mafia wives and later realize she’s become exactly what she described. Mostly, I just think it’s lazy writing. Pain and Gain has a lot of it, and the intention seems to be underlining intended social commentary. This is a film that, in better hands, could have a lot to say about contemporary American life. I think Bay clearly thinks there’s more subtext here than there actually is.
But, any subtext in a Michael Bay film is cause for minor celebration, and there are a lot of ghoulish laughs to be had. The film is loaded with despicable characters (nearly everybody is detestable on some level) and, in a film era in which everybody has to be likeable, that’s commendable in and of itself.