Michael Bay caught dismissive guffaws when he described his latest film as a “small character piece.” As absurd as that statement sounds coming from his lips, Bay was telling the truth. Pain & Gain takes a frantic look at some very twisted people, with minds deformed not only by steroids and supersets but by American pop mythology itself.
Nationalist imagery and references to the concept of the “American” permeate the film. The story’s pro/antagonists (who’s who?) engage in a vague debate about what is “American” and what is not. To Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), America means hatching a brutal proletarian revolt drenched in capitalist blood. To Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), the victim of Lugo’s caper, America means his rags-to-riches immigrant journey, fraught with tax evasion and vile business practices.
Lugo is pumped and Kershaw is shrimpy. But on the inside, both think they’re Tony Montana.
From both sides of this crude dialectic emerges a truly American synthesis: The Virtue of Selfishness. This leads to a powerful moral ambiguity throughout the film, with reasonable viewers left wondering who -if anybody- there is left to root for.
Bodybuilding provides the film with a stunning metaphor. It’s a conceptually narcissistic hobby, in which one essentially competes against oneself. The lifestyle fosters obsession with personal gain and self-betterment through complex workout regiments, meal planning, and chemical supplementation.
But in a deeper sense, the essence of bodybuilding is a reified expression of gruff ambition, a physical analogue to the intangible American Dream. Even the scrawniest dweeb can build himself into a Greek God, rep by rep and protein shake by protein shake. If you think I’m crazy, recall the scene towards the end of The Great Gatsby, where they discover one of Jay Gatsby’s notebooks. His detailed, meticulous workout routines were no accident of characterization.
Structurally and visually, the movie feels a bit like an overdose on JACK3D. What starts as a high-energy adrenaline rush quickly devolves into a nightmarish struggle with reality. Conventional heist flick slowly turns to black comedy, and before you know it we’re watching the characters gleefully dismember corpses and barbecue body parts.
Inevitably, some viewers will either miss or ignore much of what this movie has to say about modern capitalist norms, amoral socialization, and the mythology of success and ambition in America. But at the very least, we have here a disturbing true story of despair, transgression, and systemic injustice. Bay’s concoction of characters are as warped mentally as they are physically, and their story serves as an expert satire of the way we treat each other -and the way we treat ourselves.