Part 2: Pain & Gain
I remember the first time I saw Goodfellas. I was in college and I had already seen Taxi Driver and I just had to finally see it so I could stop pretending like I had to keep my Movie Lover card. I was living in downtown OKC, during the summer between my junior and senior year, in this cross between a hostel and a halfway house (long story) run by a pseudo-Christian organization. It was converted from an old hotel into this weird dorm that was eerily empty all the time, and then just as eerily full here and there. I shared my room with a friend of mine who was biding his time in the city after dropping out of school for the third time and considering joining the Marines (which he eventually did).
This absurd level of detail is crucial because I have a very vivid memory of who I was before I saw Goodfellas and who I was afterwards. It was a turning point in my cinematic journey, a rebirth to what cinema could be and what it could do and it reenergized my desire to make films of my own. Granted, after I finished it I still spent two months in that rundown Overlook wannabe, but it got the ball rolling.
How could any movie have such momentum? Goodfellas never slows down. It grabs you by the collar and drags you through to the end (not that there’s much of a fight). It’s lively in ways that you would never expect from a “gangster movie.” The narration is spotty and unfocused and human, like Henry Hill is there talking over his movie, reminiscing about the good old days. But it’s also a movie in which I’m supposed to care about bad guys who do bad things and don’t feel bad about doing them. There is none of the insular nobility of The Godfather, none of the black and white morals of The Untouchables, none of the Hayes Code lessons of the classics. There is a bad man, who pisses off other bad men, and gets to live free despite the bad things he did. Why? Because he isn’t the worst man, I guess.
I’m not here to talk about Goodfellas, but there were two movies I couldn’t stop thinking of while watching Pain & Gain, and it is one of them. (I’ll get to the other in a minute.) Like Goodfellas, P&G is all about bad men doing bad things and not feeling particularly bad at the end, even if the punishment in this case is a lot more severe.
The first scene of the film is Mark Wahlberg, ripped beyond reason, doing crunches atop a building. We hear sirens, and then we see fear on his face. He runs, the police chase him, and then we are told that what we are about to see is a true story. The first similarity with Goodfellas – the first scene is a flash forward. We loop back to the beginning and get to know our guy, Daniel Lugo. He’s a con artist and a firm believer in The Secret even if he doesn’t call it that. What he wants, he should, he will, get. All he has to do is want it hard enough and work hard enough and it will be his. “No pain, no gain,” is the bodybuilder’s motto, so naturally the inverse is true – “Pain, gain.”
It says something about Michael Bay that P&G is his idea of a “small” movie. “Smaller,” maybe, but small? No. Part of that is attributable to Bay’s style, which Tony Zhou deconstructs masterfully on his Youtube channel “Every Frame A Painting.” Bay doesn’t know how to film things in a way that is quiet or calm. He goes from big to bigger to biggest, from fast, etc. To paraphrase Zhou, Bay wants every shot to be as dynamic as possible and every cut to be as exciting as possible. This never results in something small. It’s telling that the first time Bay really put together all the elements that we have come to call “Bayhem” was for a Meatloaf video.
Lugo, head full of ideas and body full of muscles, finds his road to the top – Viktor Kershaw, the founder of Scholtzsky’s, played with venom and bile by Tony Shalhoub. Lugo is Kershaw’s personal trainer and he comes to despise the man as much for his lack of discipline as his immense wealth. A different movie would focus almost entirely on this class disparity and the irony of Lugo’s plan (destroy the 1% by becoming the 1%), but from what I can tell (both from the movie and what I’ve read about the actual story) Lugo is less of Robin Hood and more of a Tony Montana. He doesn’t so much care that Kershaw is wealthier than the rest of the country, or that he is a terrible person, but that he didn’t work hard enough. Kershaw, in Lugo’s mind, represents a perversion of his entire philosophy, and thus the natural order must be restored. And if, along the way, that means he gets to reap the benefits, so be it.
Bay devotes a surprising amount of time to the sorts of diversions and digressions that someone who hadn’t made the Tranformers movies couldn’t get away with in a studio financed film. For example, there is Ken Jeong’s sinister Matthew Lesko, a lengthy aside about Anthony Mackie’s erectile dysfunction and obsession with chubby women, a number of scenes set in a sex-toy warehouse, and several characters that could have been cut completely without affecting the flow of the story. Some might say this is a flaw, but it only reinforces the Goodfellas comparison. It makes this world, these characters, feel more fully alive. Considering how ugly their souls are, anything that makes them seem human is welcome considering we have to spend two hours with them.
There is another, very large, element of the film that I haven’t discussed yet – The Rock. (Interesting trivium – Michael Bay is the only director to have directed an actor and a movie that have the same name.) Let me get into my bunker and shout this through the mail slot: The Rock is the best actor alive. Okay, maybe not THE BEST, but he’s in the running for my top five favorite living, working actors. And that brings me to the second movie I kept thinking of while watching this – Seven Samurai.
Alright, alright, calm down! I’m not saying this is anywhere near as good as or even similar to Seven Samurai. I thought of it because The Rock’s portrayal of Paul Doyle reminded me over and over of Toshiro Mifune. Mifune, who is in the running for my top five actors ever, was able to combine in a single line, a single expression, both great pain and great strength. He could be the most ferocious man in the scene and at the same time show great chasms of vulnerability. He could be hilarious and devastatingly sad in a moment’s time.
The Rock achieves something similar here throughout. Now The Rock has an advantage – he’s a Samoan god. He only has to show up to look ferocious and strong. But consider my favorite scene in P&G, Lugo’s proposal to his new neighbors after the ransom plan works. Doyle is standing to the side, ostensibly to intimidate/impress Lugo’s audience, with the goofiest look imaginable. He seems to be in a different galaxy. As Lugo berates him he seems to almost cower. This is funny because the thought of Dwayne Johnson cowering to anyone less than Zeus is absurd by itself, but Johnson also shows a great deal of the insecurity and personal failure (and a little stupidity) of Paul Doyle in that brief moment. Doyle thought he was on the way up when he left prison. He found God, he found a job, and he was making things work. Then this puny (relatively) little man came along with talk of money and power. Is there an actor alive aside from Johnson who could do such a good job showing us that it’s Paul Doyle who is the weakest, puniest, and frailest of the three?
If P&G has a serious flaw it’s the same flaw that Goodfellas and other such crime-centric movies have, the sense that the filmmakers condone or admire the actions of these terrible men. And there is that sense throughout, though like Wolf of Wall Street, I think there is enough of a look at the ugliness of Lugo’s (and America’s) heart to dispel that charge. It may be the most obvious metaphor (and a stolen one at that), but the scene where Mackie and Wahlberg attempt to clean the blood off of Rebel Wilson’s carpet is pretty much a thesis statement – some stains you just can’t wash out, not without cutting out big chunks.
Ed Harris’s private investigator also serves as a sort of moral compass, albeit one who arrives far too late in the film to keep anyone from doing anything stupid, and just in time to stop them from getting away with it. In the end, he isn’t much better off than he was before even though he helped the “good guy” win and put the “bad guys” behind bars. If anything, the message of the film is really just one half of the title – “Pain.” That’s the American dream, and it’s the only thing you can expect. Even when justice is served, it rarely does anybody any good and even if you work your whole life with your nose to the grindstone, you may never see any real reward for it. You might, but not likely. If Bay admires Lugo and Co, it’s because they have the naivete to believe that hard work will matter. But at the black heart of this film is a paradox – hard work does not guarantee success, but don’t try to succeed without hard work. I’ve found that most of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in life boil down to an imperative and a rule that seemingly contradict each other like that. I think that P&G might be more thoughtful than it will ever get credit for.
Did Michael Bay think of this when he made the movie? Did he consider the implications of the story and the actions of it’s characters? Did he care that anyone, that I, would think about what I saw and consider how it applied to me? Did he even know that he was saying anything of the sort? Or did he just pick a script that catered to his interests (babes, muscles, cars, etc.) and shoot as dynamically and cut as excitingly as possible? I don’t know. But I’d like to think that Pain & Gain is the most personal movie Michael Bay has ever made and probably ever will make and if I’m even remotely right about that then I think he meant at least some of that stuff.
And if, as many have claimed, Pain & Gain is a glimpse into Michael Bay’s ugly soul, then it’s at least an empathetic glimpse, like Goodfellas into Henry Hill’s, or Mean Streets into Martin Scorsese’s, or my portfolio submission into mine. If so, I’m willing to meet Mike half way and see things from his point of view.
Next time: Transformers: Age of Extinction, or The Loneliest Man On Earth