Painful to Watch

Floundering performances from Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson weaken Michael Bay’s rare attempt at a low-budget film


We’ve seen it time and again: Fools plan “the perfect crime” only to get themselves in more trouble than they can handle. This premise can be funny, but there are only a few scant laughs from the inept, imbecilic meathead crew at the heart of “Pain & Gain,” an unusual foray by director Michael Bay (“The Rock”) into low-budget action/comedy that never finds the proper tone.

In Miami, bodybuilders Daniel (Mark Wahlberg), Jesus-loving Paul (Dwayne Johnson) and ’roid-raging Adrian (Anthony Mackie) have a plan. It’s not a good plan, but it makes sense to them. They want to kidnap wealthy scumbag Victor (the excellent Tony Shalhoub), force him to sign over his money and possessions, and then live like kings. After a few humorous botched attempts, they finally do pull it off. But when Victor doesn’t immediately cower, and actual brainwork is needed to finish the job, the three amigos suffer mightily. Later, a private investigator (Ed Harris) comes in to sort out the mess.

For greater perspective, Bay includes voiceover narration from at least four characters, none of whom is particularly witty or insightful. He also has the trio do dumb things, like flail a chainsaw and put a seatbelt on Victor before putting brick-to-pedal and crashing his car, which is so stupid it’s funny, but not in an endearing way.

And that’s the rub: Though they’re amusing dolts due to chronic incompetence, it’s hard to like these guys, because we know what they’re doing is immoral and illegal. And we certainly don’t like Victor either, as his odious personality offers few redeeming virtues. The result is a movie without a character to root for — and since the plot calls for us to want the main characters to win, and we know they really can’t, everything suffers.

Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script is based on a true story, and no doubt the truth is so absurd you can’t help but laugh. Problem is, Wahlberg, Johnson and Mackie don’t seem too sure if they should go for laughs all the time or only occasionally; as a result, we don’t laugh enough for the film to succeed as a comedy. Conversely, it’s too lighthearted and campy to be a drama, especially given the ridiculousness of the circumstances. Does it work as an action/comedy, or drama with comic relief? The questions are moot. Bottom line is, the tone always feels slightly off or way off.

Since Bay usually makes huge, effects-driven blockbusters such as the “Transformers” movies, the roughly $20 million budget for “Pain & Gain” racks up as Bay’s lowest since ’95’s “Bad Boys.”

Though there are no noticeable visual effects used here, the film’s still full of Bay’s trademark touches, including fluid camera work, slow motion, egregious objectification of women (supermodel Bar Paly has a sultry extended cameo) and rampant homophobia. Considering the IQ level of his movies, Bay could be perceived as a meathead himself. The truth is, though, it takes a lot of intelligence to succeed at the level he’s hit in the past. It’s ironic he can’t succeed here.

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