Pain & Gain

Pain & Gain ★★★½

The movie that P & G kept reminding me of while I was watching it was Spring Breakers. They're both broad, satirical takes on the "American Dream" as imagined by Maxim readers and college aged girls respectively, they're both willing to get really, really stupid in the service of embodying that ideal, and they both feature triumphant performances from unexpected quarters. Spring Breakers is probably a little funnier, but Pain & Gain is a more rigorous, well-executed vision.

I know "vision" and "Michael Bay" are generally considered matter and anti-matter, but credit must be given where it is due. Twenty years of selling sex, cars and testosterone to the panting, blue-balled multitudes has given Bay a perfect sense of the naked hunger that moved all those Nikes and sold all those movie tickets. It may make Bay a hypocrite to crudely mock all the Philistine fantasies he stoked for so long, but he's pretty much the only person who could make this movie meaningful. In any other hands, it would just be another snide Hollywood exercise in making fun of poor, dumb crooks. Using the very techniques that sold a generation of American men on the value of cash and bitches to ridicule those values into oblivion is a stunning high-wire act. There's still all the crude, pig-stupid "Bay humor" you've winched at hundreds of times before, but here is seems oddly necessary, a demonic channeling of every dullard who ever acted out a scene from Scarface. It pairs nicely with that patented mid-90s Michael Bay gloss and those eye-gouging pastels. Even better, that painful, steakhead-approved schtick perfectly sets up a third act descent into darkness that is positively bracing.

The most memorable thing about Pain & Gain is definitely the performances. You've got Mark Wahlberg embodying that particular American combination of apocalyptic stupidity and unflinching confidence, reacting to every set-back and complication with the confused rage of a muscle-bound toddler. Even better, though, you've got Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, reminding everybody that he may well be the most underrated actor of his generation. No other action star can credibly convey Johnson's wounded vulnerability, and in this film, he puts those disarmingly wide eyes to brilliant use before his character's second-half transformation into an emotionally dead coke robot. By the end of the movie, it's The Rock's bleary, vacant eyes that haunt you. They speak of the terrible psychic penalty for living in Michael Bay's American Dream.