Has Michael Bay acquired self-consciousness? That's the question raised, if never convincingly answered, by Pain & Gain, an outrageous based-on-real-life tale that's perfectly suited to the director's insanely overblown stylistic and thematic temperament. Rife with racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism, and infatuated with superficial beauty, physical strength, wealth, and military might, it's the perfect encapsulation of Bay's favorite things, a rollicking, repugnant, hilarious mess of inappropriateness that at once embraces, and condemns, its many tasteless elements.
Therein lies the conundrum: Bay celebrates all that's wrong with America, and yet—because his story is a censure of the very things it loves—it's not fully clear if, via his flashy car-commercial aesthetics, he's drooling over hot bodies and swank Miami beachfront homes because he's slyly analyzing himself, or because, well, that's just the Bay way. From moment to moment, Bay piles on the same surface-over-depth strip club-ish ostentation that's coveted and revered by his main characters, which would seem to be the director's means of engaging in canny auto-critique if it weren't also the very type of visual and aural assault the Transformers auteur has been peddling for the past two decades.
Whether self-aware or oblivious to the fact that his moviemaking is part and parcel of the problems his latest opus addresses, such ambiguousness provides an extra layer of tension to Pain & Gain, which situates Mark Wahlberg at the center of a Bay-ified variation on Boogie Nights. Like Dirk Diggler, Wahlberg's protagonist, Miami Beach personal trainer Daniel Lugo, believes that he has a gift—in this case, a pumped-up physique and the know-how to push others past their limits—and a dreamer's conviction that he's destined for something more than his current mediocre station in life. Inspired by self-help guru Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong, all screaming craziness), Lugo imagines himself a “doer,” though his plans for transcending his working-class circumstances soon reveal him to be less a go-getter than a shortcut-taker. With the help of a steroidal workout mate, Adrian (Anthony Mackie), and a hulking ex-con, Paul (Dwayne Johnson), who's recently kicked the coke habit and found Jesus, Daniel develops a scheme to kidnap his wealthy client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), and then force the half-Jewish, half-Colombian businessman to sign over his fortune to them. Thus Daniel will acquire his deserved slice of the American dream, which for him primarily involves riding a new lawnmower around the grounds of Victor's home, screwing and discarding a stripper, Sorina (Bar Paly), who buys Daniel's I'm-in-the-C.I.A. lies, and teaching neighborhood kids about the values of pumping iron and getting tail.
That knuckleheaded scam seems destined for immediate failure, especially after multiple botched attempts to snatch and grab Victor, and then abject failure to conceal their identities from him once he's secured in the back of a dry cleaner that doubles as a gay sex-toy warehouse. Bay shows surprising adeptness at highlighting the comical buffoonery of his protagonists, wielding slow motion and sudden title cards—including a late one to remind you that, yes, “this is still a true story”—to ridicule with reckless abandon. Alas, if Bay recognizes his antiheroes as worthy of mockery and scorn, he also wholeheartedly adopts their ugliness at every turn. That's most true with respect to the characterization of Victor, a loathsome cretin who blusters and berates with unabashed arrogance and cruelty (“You're a very difficult victim, Victor,” aptly states Ed Harris's noble private investigator), and whose Jewishness is throughout kept front and center. Pain & Gain is, at heart, the story of three guys striking back against a rich Jew who they imagine stole their American dream, and Bay's and Shalhoub's treatment of Victor—all greased-up egotism before his abduction, and then spittle-spewing, face-deformed monstrousness after they're through with him—does nothing but mirror Daniel's vision of the character as an undeserving, overachieving thief who gets what's coming to him.
That noxiousness is accompanied by de facto gay-panic jokes, cracks about blacks, Christians, and immigrants, and a for-laughs-sake appearance of a little person, all wrapped in a consuming portrait of American male infantilism and gluttony. Daniel pimps his red sports car with Scooby-Doo seat covers, claims Scarface and Sonny Corleone as his idols, and he and his cronies highly value sleek rides, slutty women, money, drugs, and their dicks. Those last two go, ahem, hand-in-hand in the case of Adrian, who's at once obsessed with big booty, to the point that he eventually marries Rebel Wilson's rotund, wise-cracking physician, and yet, because of endless anabolic juicing, has gone permanently flaccid in the crotch department. Adrian's quest for cash is motivated by a need to get hard again, and in an obvious sense a desire for arousal is what drives all three of Pain & Gain's morons, who celebrate with Victor's riches by joyously jumping around his house like a kid (Daniel), getting penis injections (Adrian), or snorting endless lines of blow off the ass of a bleach-blond stripper (Paul). It's a carnival of the male Id run rampant, and Bay accompanies this action with endless phallic imagery, so that everything from the veins in Paul's gargantuan biceps to a 747 spied in an upturned-angle shot emanating from Victor's bulge is equipped with go-go-erection implications.
The literal and figurative impotence against which Daniel, Adrian, and Paul rage is, obviously, of their own doing, be it Adrian's breast milk-and-HGH shakes or Daniel's refusal to honestly earn his wealth by going to college and working hard. Pain & Gain convincingly slams its protagonists for their own delusions and idiocy, aided by starring turns that are uniformly spot-on: Wahlberg's dim-bulb wannabe-mastermind vanity, Johnson's confused-giant empty-headedness, Mackie's pitiful little-man-complex striving. Narcissism, entitlement, and intolerance form the three-headed beast at the heart of Bay's film. And as it barrels forward into ever-darker places, including a second ruse-gone-awry that leads to severed hands roasting on an open fire, the director lampoons with the same muscularity of characters who pause mid-mayhem to get in some curls and bench-press work, his camera flying through corridors and glass doors, chasing fleeing criminals across rooftops, and (naturally, for gun-obsessed Bay) lavishing some cinematographic super-slow-mo TLC on heavily armed SWAT teams. The result is an equally riotous and repugnant film that simultaneously derides and epitomizes everything wrong with modern America—regardless of whether or not Bay is ultimately in on his own joke.