"Pain & Gain" Defines an Aesthetic

Pain & Gain –- Dir. Michael Bay (Paramount) –- 4 Stars

COURTESY PARAMOUNT PICTURES

Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg, and Anthony Mackie star in Michael Bay's latest, "Pain & Gain."

Around this time four years ago, I was committing to go to Harvard to study film. I was a typical high school film snob, which is to say, the worst kind. I was the kind of kid who thought that because I was the only one in school to have seen Renoir’s “Grand Illusion,” I knew everything there was to know about the world of film. If it was popular, it wasn’t for me. That summer, in 2009, a month before I showed up for freshman orientation, I saw Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” mostly so I could laugh at it. It was awful, to be sure, but I had already unfairly decided that before I had even purchased my ticket.

But I’ve learned a lot in my four years at Harvard. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that being a film snob is terrible. It’s a generic, arrogant, and, perhaps most injuriously, narrow frame of mind that leads to prejudice as well as boring, predictable criticism. There is no shame in embracing kitsch.

So it is fitting, then, in the last review I will ever write for The Crimson, that I get to happily and wholeheartedly tell you that Michael Bay’s newest film “Pain & Gain” is so, so good. It’s a decent comedy and some sort of incredible, inadvertent self-parody of the Michael Bay mode of film.

“Pain & Gain” is a true crime film about Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a bodybuilder who recruits two coworkers (Anthony Mackie and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to kidnap a Miami business mogul and force him to sign over his entire fortune. It is essentially a slapstick comedy about specimens of both incredible physical fitness and remarkable stupidity.

Connotatively, to call someone an auteur is a high compliment. But denotatively, auteur theory simply asserts that the director is the primary creative force behind a film, that the overall aesthetic, pacing, and intangible “feel” of a film can be attributed to a single person. Michael Bay is the most cogent example of an auteur today, having cultivated an aesthetic that is equal parts explosions, bombast, crude humor, and oversaturated color palette. Regardless of the quality of his films, it is tough to argue that he does not have a singular, cohesive style of filmmaking.

This is the essence of what makes “Pain & Gain” so interesting. Bay has described the film as a small character piece, made on the cheap ($25 million as opposed to $200 million), and yet it still feels remarkably like a Michael Bay film.

There are still dramatic proclamations set to stirring music that mean almost nothing. In addition, there is still all of the requisite humor aimed squarely at the teenage boy set. Mackie’s character, Adrian, refers to his steroid-shriveled testicles as “raisinettes” and at another point, a character misconstrues dialing *69 (the film is set in 1995) as a sex act. There are still all of the cinematic tactics in the Bay arsenal. Practically every other shot in the film is a low-angle shot that tracks around these muscle-bound characters, who look ready to burst out of their tight tank tops and possibly out of the film screen.

In fact, even with what is supposed to be a small character piece, Bay still manages to throw in one exploding car. And yes, the trio manages to walk away from it in slow motion as it erupts behind them.

Wahlberg and Mackie do serviceable jobs as the bumbling criminals. In particular, Wahlberg’s constantly amped-up persona and line delivery grows increasingly comical as the films goes on. Following a particularly fatal turn of events, Lugo stops to “get a pump,” lifting weights in the same room as his victim. One notable sight gag involves him walking out of a bank with a briefcase full of money, clutching it to his chest with both hands and grinning like a small child.

While Wahlberg, Mackie, and their comedy-ringer supporting cast (Tony Shalhoub, Rebel Wilson, Rob Corddry, and Ken Jeong) are decent, the film’s standout is The Rock, who in the past two years has truly grown into his niche as a film star. His character, a reformed criminal who has since found religion and wears one-size-too-small shirts that say things like “I am on Team Jesus,” gets some of the best lines. This includes the proclamation, “Jesus Christ has blessed me with many gifts. One of them is knocking someone the fuck out!” The Rock has arrived, folks. Don’t try to resist.

“Pain & Gain” is, in the end, a charming paradox. It is the least Michael-Bay film Bay has ever made, containing nearly none of the reckless destruction for which he is known. Yet somehow, it is also the most Michael-Bay a film can get, distilling all of his cinematic techniques down to their essence and deconstructing the aspects that fall into the Bay aesthetic. Despite never feeling schizophrenic, it is an example of a director falling into his worst habits and simultaneously a tragically fascinating attempt at restraint.

If you love Michael Bay, you will like “Pain & Gain.” If you hate Michael Bay, but love to make fun of his style, you will love “Pain & Gain.” There is nothing else quite like it. Don’t be a snob. Go see it.

—Staff writer Brian Feldman can be reached at bfeldman@college.harvard.edu.

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