When I first read the plot outline for Michael Bay’s “Pain and Gain” months ago, I couldn’t help but think how crazy and ridiculous the whole thing seemed. Then I realized it was based on a true story. As a fan of true crime stories, I developed an interest in the film but still found myself saying ‘this is way too wacky to be true.’ Yet, as they say, truth is stranger than fiction. With the kind of grisly true crime case the film depicts, you can’t help but wish this was fiction rather than truth.
Bro, Do You Even Kidnap?
“Pain and Gain” is based on a series of articles written in the Miami New Times. The movie focuses on Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie). They’re two Miami bodybuilders who are frustrated with the way their lives are going and decide to take action in order to improve them. They’re both tired of being kept down by responsibilities, money-woes and the mediocrity of their daily lives at the gym. They enlist the help of Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), an ex-con fresh out of jail with a new-found faith in God. Together, these three plan to kidnap Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a rich and successful gym regular, and rob him of his own good fortunes. What could possibly go wrong?
“I’ve Watched a Lot of Movies; I Know What I’m Doing!”
To me, this film felt similar to Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers”. A group of friends are unsatisfied with their current predicaments and decide to take matters into their own hands using violent means. Yet the key difference between these two films is that in “Pain and Gain”, the much sought-after prize isn’t money but the beloved ‘American Dream.’ This film preaches Americanism and the greatness of patriotism almost like it was forced to. Lugo’s entire reasoning for the kidnap, torture, and extortion is because he believes he is entitled to his share of the American Dream and that he wishes to “make America a better place.” There’s even a scene in which he narrates that he has no sympathy for people who squander their potential because he deems it “unpatriotic.”
Red, White and Crude
Yet despite his Uncle Sam-like philosophies, Doorbal and Doyle follow Lugo without much question, even though they know exactly the kind of illegal stuff they’re getting into. While Doorbal proves to be the zaniest of the three, Doyle is the most human. He bonds with Kershaw and even tries to save him through the power of religion. Doyle expresses fear, anxiety, and even sorrow for what he does to Kershaw. However, the overall message in the film became suffocated by the crazy and absurd antics showcased by the three kidnappers. There’s a silly style of comedy here, with sex, brutality and the objectification of women being the punchline for almost every darkly comic joke in the film. And while the film does get a little more serious towards the end, there’s not much room left for drama with such despicable characters.
“Pain and Gain” is a difficult film to dissect. While it stays mostly true to the bizarre real life story on which it is based, it detracts in the most ridiculous ways all just to get a few laughs out of the audience. I don’t exactly agree that such a tragic story should be presented as a raunchy comedy but at the same time, the sheer absurdity of the case almost welcomes such an approach. Still, I have to give credit where it’s due and say that despite the wackiness of the film, it is an interesting attempt to study what it means to be “truly American” and how, for some, the American Dream must be achieved by any means necessary.