I try to give every movie at least six–hundred words, even if that represents more work and creativity than the movie gave to me. That’s going to be a struggle for Pain & Gain (2013) because, according to my thesaurus, there are only fifty synonyms for “bad.” So I tried “uninteresting” and “unpleasant,” but they only have seventy synonyms between them and there’s some overlap, so we’re only really up to around one-sixth of where I’d like to be. But I’ll slog through it, just as I slogged through this terrible, rotten movie that had me asking a number of questions, both small ones about the plot such as, “Why would he feed his severed toe to the dog?” and larger ones such as, “What has my life come to?”
There‘s been a slate of movies recently about dumb criminals heedlessly getting in over their heads. For the most part I’ve approved of this movement, as I enjoyed, with reservations, both Killer Joe (2012) and The Paperboy (2012), a couple of sweaty exploitations about low-rent crooks with as few brains as morals. However, those movies about dumb people were made by smart filmmakers, and while I liked them, I recognized that they were flirting too close to the edge of bad taste to represent a vanguard that I want to see much more of. Enter Michael Bay, for whom bad taste is a badge of honor, who has thrown his hat (or American flag bandana) into the ring with Pain & Gain, which is a shallow, derisive, juvenile movie about bodybuilders who turn to a life of crime.
The movie stars Mark Wahlberg, perhaps the most ill-used actor of his generation, as Daniel Lugo, the leader of a gang of meatheads who kidnap and extort a man. Lugo allegedly lusts for the things he never had, which he defines as the American Dream. However, he seems satisfied in his work as a personal trainer and there’s even a montage early in the movie where we see how great he thinks things are going. So why kidnapping? There’s a little about impressing a girl at the gym who rebuffs his advances, but that doesn’t get developed. He screams at his victim, “I don’t just want what you have; I want you not to have it!” but we don’t understand why that is. We get even less motivation from his mates, Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne Johnson), and the three of them rotate, each getting his chance (or chances) to be the reasoned one, the manic one, the aggressive one, etc. They are all types but they don’t stay one type for long, and they definitely never turn into real people.
What makes this lack of characterization confusing is that in Pain & Gain we know the inner thoughts of each character. They say the voice-over is the refuge of the lazy screenwriter. That’s not always true, but I’d like to point out that no fewer than six characters have voice-overs here. None of these ever rise above the level of inanity, but there is a constant stream of them that add zero insight into anything. This is apathetic filmmaking, the kind that thinks style is something you can add in post-production, the type that gives the minimum amount of effort to simply create an intelligible story, nothing more. It has sequences so tone-deaf, so crass, so filled with contempt for the people in the movie and for people who would enjoy such a movie that the cynicism is caustic. I got nothing out of it except two hours older and—whoa—that’s six hundred words.