As an eyes-only experience, “Pain & Gain” is impressive, in an overbearing sort of way. Long-lens shots of Miami sunsets, hot bodies around turquoise swimming pools, and big orange fireballs. Say what you will about Michael Bay’s taste for brain-grindingly stupid dialogue, Swiss cheese plotting, and female characters in lip gloss and string bikinis. His signature style, total bayhem, is as unmistakable as the roar and diesel tang of a monster truck rally. If that chaos-on-steroids quality is what you love about the guy, his latest will wallop your involuntary nervous system in the manner you enjoy. For everyone else, it will be death by aggravation.
In a story based on a real-life 1990s murder spree, Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie play bonehead Florida bodybuilders. All around them, people are living large while our antiheroes, little men in big bodies, can barely scrape together the rent. After a session with a glib life coach (played to the arrogant hilt by Ken Jeong), Wahlberg decides that anything is possible for “a doer.” And the quickest route to overnight wealth is doing some rich people. As in kidnap, extort and kill. Wahlberg assures man-child Johnson that it’ll be quick and painless. “I’ve watched a lot of movies,” he says. “I know what I’m doing.” The trio become spectacularly unsuccessful partners in crime.
The film plays out as a perverse comedy of errors. Their first mark, a deeply creepy Tony Shalhoub, is tough enough to stand up to long rounds of torture, refusing to sign over his property with near-inhuman bullheadedness. When it’s time to dispose of him, he proves unkillable. He’s given an OD of pills and liquor, put through a high-speed car crash, set afire and run over by the crooks twice. When he survives it all, the police understandably disbelieve his tale.
There’s more, with Ed Harris as a sardonic private eye, a Christian-rocker gun dealer, a second round of fatal robberies and … never mind. It doesn’t matter. Twists and subsidiary characters pile on, bloating the film beyond repair. Where inspired violent comedies like “Seven Psychopaths” and “Fargo” deliver their jolts with deadpan, tongue-in-cheek precision, “Pain & Gain” hits its thumb with the hammer. Every. Single. Time. Comedy relies on a clockwork connection between cause and unintended effect. Bay’s movies are about the cacophony of everything happening at once. Here the camera flops around like a newly hooked fish.
Wahlberg, Mackie and especially Johnson have good looks, strong comic chops and innate amiability. Still, it’s impossible to connect emotionally with their characters.
It would be nice to imagine that Bay is making a point that in movies good people are always beautiful, bad people are always ugly, and in real life it’s often the opposite. But let’s not kid ourselves, the guy is shallower than a puddle. His lead actors are presented as clueless dorks, not monsters. They dress up in Halloween ninja costumes to kidnap folks, how cute is that? Sure, they stack up severed limbs like cordwood, but they’re really underdogs with some amusing flaws. Their victims are condescending jerks or worse, overweight women. They’re photographed to look as unappealing as possible. They’re asking for it.
The problem isn’t the triple-gainer difficulty of making a yukfest out of a horrific crime. “Bernie,” the Jack Black/Shirley MacLaine story of a real-life Texas killer, was brutally funny, disturbing and honest, fun to watch without making fun of its subjects. “Pain & Gain” could have been a dark comedy about lowlifes chasing the high life, but lacks the guiding vision to hold its clashing elements in balance. It drops the weights with a big, clattering crash.