Pain & Gain, Michael Bay, and The American Dream

For better or worse, there is no more quintessentially American filmmaker than Michael Bay.

No one captures the more-is-more, hedonistic attitude of our culture quite like Bay (if you can think of a cinematic image from the past decade that is as firmly rooted in our macho-expansionist genes - or that so succinctly summarizes how the rest of the world sees us - as Will Smith and Martin Lawrence plowing through a Cuban shanty-town in a Humvee, I'm all ears) [1].  And quite frankly, very few match his craft. If nothing else, Pain & Gain should serve as a reminder to audiences that Bay is not only a competent (if supremely over-indulgent) filmmaker, but an incredibly talented one.

That talent has gotten lost within the haze of his somewhat base storytelling predilections, and has been all but drowned out for the past six years by an endless string of Transformers movies, which represent nothing more than a series of cynical, mind-numbing exercises in discovering just what exactly would happen if various indistinguishable metal parts pounded against each other for 8 1/2 hours. The one upside to those experiments is that they seem to have forced Bay to a point where he finally felt the need to step back and limit his scope to something a bit more human.

I use the word "human" very loosely because, while Bay does remind us with Pain & Gain that he can be a hell of a director when given the right material, the right material seems to be that which holds his own species in very little regard.  A pitch-black comedy that nonetheless focuses on character even when it reaches the heights of its own craziness, and which handles its tonal shifts not only with aplomb but with the same go-for-broke, this-may-be-the-last-movie-I-ever-make-so-I-better-make-it-count verve as his most bombastic fare, Pain & Gain is a better movie than I thought Michael Bay had in him. While it hits a lot of the same gleeful notes of audacious amorality as his previous masterpiece, Bad Boys II, this time all of the excess, all of the blinding colors, over-used slo-mo, and idiocy, serves a genuine thematic purpose.

Yes, thematic purpose.

An uncomfortable truth that a lot of us are just going to have to accept is that Michael Bay is an auteur in the truest sense of the word. There is never for a single frame of one of his movies any doubt as to who made them, and his interests and personality saturate every single element of his films. What's always been missing, aside from a focused sense of storytelling, has been the hint that he has anything to say - a hint that his directorial vision extended beyond just wanting to cram his movies with the coolest shit he could think of. While his latest has nothing particularly new to offer as far as insight into the human condition, it nonetheless presents an endlessly entertaining condemnation of a culture that has degenerated into complete moral atrophy. In telling the story of a group of cash-strapped, 'roid-fed morons who hope to fulfill their dreams by kidnapping a millionaire and forcing him to sign over all of his wealth and possessions, Bay is leveling a damning eye at a generation whose sense of entitlement has rotted us to our empty core.

The trio of lead actors play those morons at just the right pitch - fairly broad but always just this side of believable (I don't know whether it says more about me or their performances that I found myself rooting for them no matter what depths of vile idiocy their actions reached). Mark Wahlberg's Daniel Lugo is an interesting extrapolation of Dirk Diggler, while Anthony Mackie is somehow able to make his character's complete worthlessness as a human being both sympathetic and believable. Yet it's Dwayne Johnson who is especially revelatory as an over-sensitive, God-fearing lunkhead always doing his best to not give in to his own innate brutality. Many years ago I laughed when the star of The Scorpion King told David Letterman that he genuinely wanted to improve his skill as a thespian, and while I was long ago led to concede that The Rock was in fact a genuine movie star, he shows here that he does indeed have the chops to be a damn fine actor as well.

What's most interesting about Pain & Gain is the level to which it suggests that Bay has always been incredibly self-aware. The overuse of the American flag, perpetrated with the utmost of sincerity in previous films, takes on a very different meaning here, as he equates the ever-hallowed quest for upward mobility with the doomed attempts of three idiots for wealth at all costs. Yet Bay isn't satirizing the American Dream so much as a generation that has perverted its base ideals and used it as a means for justifying entitlement rather than good, old-fashioned bootstrapping hard work. The trio at the center of Pain & Gain are not a counter-argument to the blue collar heroes of Armageddon so much as a validation-by-contrast of their valor. While Tony Shaloub plays Victor Kershaw, the victim of the trio's crimes, as the absolute scum of the earth, the movie is ultimately on his side. Rather than an indictment of the lifestyle he represents, Kershaw's virulence is a nod towards nuance made by a filmmaker who has no use for it. It's significant that once Lugo empties out Kershaw's Carribbean bank account, in his final mad dash to suck up whatever assets the man has left, he discovers with confused horror that the man's safe deposit box is full of not coins nor bouillon but mementos - bronzed baby shoes and old family photos. What's ultimately most precious to Kershaw is something that Lugo, in his empty-headed drive to sate his dissatisfaction with material wealth, will never understand; bitter as the casing may be, there is nonetheless something genuine inside of Kershaw's black heart that gives him strength and allows him to persevere. He has something to believe in, even if he is a bastard [2].

This thematic richness only heightens the joy of watching what is a heedlessly entertaining movie. The plot builds to levels of increasingly unpredictable insanity, and it's ultimately all the more rewarding that the film is able to carry it all off as well as it does. There's nothing more exciting as a movie fan than to have a filmmaker that you've completely written off surprise you in as exhilarating a fashion as Bay does here. For once, he has not only found an actual story to tell, but has found one that completely justifies his style and sensibilities. I used to think that there was nothing worse that Bay could do to me than Transformers 2, but it turns out I was wrong - he's now put me in a position wherein I have to convince people that I know and love, whose confidence in my opinions I hold very dear, that he has made a great movie.

- cs

[1] Well, other than a group of American-made cars shape-shifting into giant robots and tearing the shit out of Shangahi.

[2] And on the topic of self-awareness, the sub-theme that it's better to be honestly successful and disliked than to take short-cuts and be loved must surely be one that hits close to Bay's heart.