Pain and Gain begins with bodybuilder Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) grunting the words “I’m hot! “I’m big!” Coincidentally the film’s director Michael Bay probably chants the same mantra to himself each morning. In his nearly two decades in Hollywood there hasn’t been a more indulgent, over-the-top and stereotypically masculine director than Bayhem. Making his first return to ‘based on a true story’ filmmaking since Pearl Harbor, it really is no surprise that Pain and Gain is an overlong slap in the face to anyone who appreciates cinema.
It’s fitting the film is set in Miami, Florida because every movie Michael Bay shoots looks like it’s in Miami, Florida anyway with his lush colours and scantily clad actors. Pain and Gain follows three bodybuilders – played by Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – who are essentially modeled off True Blood’s Jason Stackhouse. They’re The Three Stooges on steroids and in a bid to accelerate their American dream they resort to extortion, robbery and eventually murder.
Based on a series of fascinating articles by journalist Pete Collins, Pain and Gain is supposed to be Bayhem’s commentary on the mutation of US values and the ‘can do spirit’. Yet Michael Bay doing satire is like Miley Cyrus doing gangsta: it’s awkward and uncomfortable to watch. Ultimately it ends with everyone trying to avert their eyes until the bizarre spectacle is over. Not quite sure how to combine his signature polished style with an actual message, Bay thinks the Morgan Freeman approach will work. That is to say he includes the most unnecessary series of voiceovers since Spring Breakers (which is a essentially a companion piece to Pain and Gain given it’s shared sense of pretentious self-importance). Add The Bling Ring in there and you have the superficial satire trilogy to end them all. The voiceovers and jarring text drops clash horribly with his trademark slow motion and camera tilts. Infact, there’s so much camera tiltage you leave the movie with a sore neck as you subconsciously begin adjusting your head to try and view it normally through its duration. The abundance of slow-mo too is a lot, even for a Michael Bay movie. There’s slow-mo shots of dudes jumping over balconies, slow-mo shots of soldiers leaping out of cars, slow-mo shots of guys running, slow-mo shots of underweight models getting in and out of a pool, slow-mo shots of strippers working dat pole and – the Bayhem special – slow-mo shots of muscular men walking away from a massive explosion. Unflinching.
The performances are fine. Wahlberg’s dramatic intensity has manifested nicely with an increase of comedic roles and he balances The Funky Bunch with a magnetic onscreen presence. Johnson plays essentially a Polynesian Labrador, but Mackie really draws the short straw as one of the few African Americans in the cast. He’s stuck delivering lines like “Save the drama for yo mama” and “That’s some straight up gangster shit yo”. He’s better than exaggerated and vaguely racist deliveries of what two white screenwriters stereotypically deem ‘black speak’. Mind you, the white actors don’t get to spit any improved lyrical with gems like: “Sometimes God just fucks up your order and you’ve gotta chow down on that shitty chow sandwich.” But you don’t go to a Bayhem film for the dialogue. Obvs.
“Every man needs to fight for his dignity,” says the wife of Ed Harris’ private detective. One of the few female characters that gets to keep her clothes on in the movie, she doesn’t happen to say what a woman needs to fight for. Clearly dignity in a Michael Bay film is out of the question. After all, this is the guy that auditioned Megan Fox for Transformers by filming her washing a car. Women in Bay’s films are portrayed one of two ways: dumb or slutty. There are often shades of grey, wherein a character can be both slutty and dumb. There is NO middle ground. Not only is this a sexist, insulting and – frankly – fucking infuriating thing to watch from a female audience member’s perspective, it’s tiresome.
Yeah, look, you’re not going to see a multi-faceted female character with complexity and depth in a Bad Boys I or II. We get it. You’re a pig. But Pain and Gain takes it to a whole other level. One woman is introduced to the story by her husband telling her to: “Meet my friends. Show ‘em your tits.” In another scene, members of the local community fight over who gets to volunteer to “rape” an underdressed stripper in a mock safety demonstration. Danny Lugo jokes “This isn’t a gang rape guys”. Good luck finding a single female laughing at that line in your local cinema. Misogynistic comments are dropped by characters more frequently than steroids. The argument that sexist comments in Pain and Gain aren’t really sexist because the characters making them are portrayed as idiots is invalid. Would you believe there are unintelligent people out there who, strangely, don’t have to make themselves feel better by degrading women? I know, crazy. Just because Paula Deen is borderline retarded, that doesn’t making her any less of a racist bigot. Inaccurate profiling isn’t politely delegated to IQ groupings. If you’re sexist, you’re sexist: whether you’re Stephen Hawkins or The Situation.
The only thing Michael Bay seems to hate more than women is fat people: a hatred that is manifested clearly in the sentiments and actions of his three pivotal meatheads. Take Rebel Wilson’s role as Mackie’s wife. Ya, Wilson’s character is not a size four like every other female given a part in the film. It’s nice. It’s refreshing. It’s realistic. Yet it’s continually shoved down our throat as different characters say “She’s a big girl” or “Oh, he has a thing for big girls” and “You wouldn’t be able to handle her” and “She’s a big girl”. WE. GET. IT. WILSON HAS HAD MORE THAN THREE RYVITA CRACKERS IN HER LIFE. CAN WE ALL MOVE ON NOW? The only other ‘overweight’ woman in the film is a fast food chain employee who is depicted as a dumb, sexually deprived slob. Lovely.
If Pain and Gain were a human being it would the kind that punctuated the end of a sentence with the word “BOOM!” and a fist bump. Does that make it any less insulting? Any less sexist? Any less fatist? Any less racist? No. It’s big, it’s dumb, and it’s everything you would expect from Michael Bay.
Maria Lewis – follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz