Pain & Gain: Michael Bay Directs Mark Wahlberg

By Jeff Farr

Mark Wahlberg lunges for laughs and takes quite a tumble in Michael Bay’s offensive “Pain & Gain.”


Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, an idiot personal trainer at a 1990s Miami gym whose shallow idea of the American Dream is basically to steal it from someone else’s hands, the richer that person the better. Is it to Wahlberg’s credit that he makes Lugo so annoying that the audience finds itself awaiting his comeuppance sooner rather than later?

Probably not. Bay wants us to side with the criminals here—they’re intended to be lovable lunkheads-—but the series of crimes Lugo and company conceive and commit are so heinous that it becomes impossible to wish them any success or to even care if they’re ever going to have a crisis of conscience. This movie has a sick, ugly heart.

When Lugo gets a rich new client at the gym, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), he starts to concoct an imbecilic plan to kidnap him and take over all of his business interests. There’s a surprisingly strong anti-Semitic sentiment at work here, as Victor is clearly meant to embody the age-old stereotype of the money-mad, miserly Jew. (Bay was, for the record, raised by Jewish adoptive parents, so go figure.)

Lugo needs to pull together a small gang to accomplish this feat and enlists hapless accomplices Adrian (Anthony Mackie), a coworker who’s struggling with impotence, and Paul (Dwayne Johnson), a devout Christian with substance abuse issues. Bay wrongheadedly attempts to find humor in the men going on a shopping spree for weapons and later, in a profoundly tasteless sequence, dismembering their victims and throwing their random body parts on the grill.

Bay is like a raconteur telling a nasty joke that just can’t stop himself, even though his listeners are nervously looking away. Technically, as in his previous films, Bay serves as manager of a busy traffic control, orchestrating set-pieces that are for the mst part aggressive, noisy, and silly,

In the post-Sandy Hook, post-Boston Marathon world, this kind of bottom-of-the-barrel material, which “dude movies” like the “The Hangover” series have long been turning into box office gold, feels more egregious than ever. These films have become the worst that Hollywood has to offer, and “Pain & Gain” is a prime example of this dubious sub-genre.

The haphazard screenplay, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, leans heavily throughout on voiceover narration that comes from multiple characters. But this certainly is not Terrence Malick territory—none of the characters has anything illuminating or memorable to say, and this attempt to add depth to the flimsy-but-supposedly-true story just seems strange and purposeless.

The story also goes on way too long. By the point that Victor has been in captivity for three weeks, it feels like the movie itself has been running for three weeks. And that’s not even near to the closing credits.

Lugo and his stooges have a second job they want to pull off, while an escaped Victor has enlisted an investigator (Ed Harris) to track them down at a snail’s pace and bring them to justice.

“Pain & Gain” imagines itself to be funny but it really isn’t. Among other “distinctions,” the movie doesn’t manage to introduce a single sympathetic character. Worse yet, it succumbs to its own longwinded juvenility.

The director and his team have made much of the relatively low production budget—by Bay’s and Hollywood’s standards—rumored to be around $25 million. Some filmmakers make a virtue out of a restrictive budget, but not Bay. No matter what the bottom line is, every Bay picture bears his signature.

“Pain & Gain” is much like one of the crimes that its story describes: poorly planned, poorly carried out, and wholly disturbing.