“Is it just me, or is Michael Bay giving a deliberate middle finger to the Coen Brothers?”
That question, offered to my companion approximately 90% of the way through a screening of Pain & Gain, was admittedly partially–but only partially–performative critical snark, a sort of “aren’t I clever?” rhetorical observation meant more to help idle away the increasingly dragging minutes until the film limped to its conclusion than to offer a serious critical analysis.
Being convinced (and it would take some convincing) that the answer to that question was “yes” is about the only way I could really enjoy Pain & Gain a potential-laden but ultimately tedious dark comedy whose ingestion is more painful than gainful. Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie play a trio of buffed up but none too bright fitness trainers who decide to kidnap and torture one of their clients, getting him to sign over his wealth to them.
There were three things that made me think of this comparison. The first was my own viewing experience which followed a Coen brothers picture pattern: thirty to forty minutes of moderate to mild pleasure at the weirdness of it all; another thirty to forty minutes of anxious restlessness, hoping the film would settle in and get about the business of being about whatever it was about; and, a concluding thirty to sixty minutes of growing restlessness and disappointment as I began to resign myself to the conclusion that it’s all style over substance and that I let my hopes get up again.
Too abstract? The more immediate catalyst for the comparison was the arrival of Ed Harris (Ed DuBois) in a Sheriff Bell-ish role as the retired symbol of law, order, and decency that is rapidly disappearing from the world occupied by our central characters. For my taste, Pain & Gain takes a little too much relish in its first act shenanigans to credibly retreat to a shaking-its-head-”what’s the world coming to?” conclusion, so I do actually think it important that Sheriff Bell opens as well as closes No Country For Old Men. The point-of-view hops around in Pain & Gain, jumping from narrative voice to narrative voice, and this is subtly but importantly different than the juxtaposition of first-person and third-person in Cormac McCarthy’s novel and the Coen’s film. The latter invite you to adopt Bell’s perspective from the get go, or at least announces up front that his perspective is more central to the narrative’s meaning than that of those to whom he is responding. In Bay’s film, it feels as though the switches are more haphazard, executed when the characters have lost their (initial) likability, and DuBois’s appearance reads more like a deux-ex-machina or a moral life preserver for those who have gone along for the ride with the three criminal stooges but need an exit strategy when things start getting really ugly.
Pain & Gain lacks the ability or willingness to poke the audience with its (doesn’t matter if you parse that as “the audience’s” or “the film’s”) own complicity. DuBois blames the police for a haphazard investigation, claiming that its overkill at the end is a compensation for its embarrassing failure to take what was happening seriously. A better movie, then would find a way to link the audience more directly to the police than to DuBois, giving it space to come to its own realizations that this really isn’t meant to be funny. Here though, it is meant to be funny, at least until it’s not, and the transition is reinforced and underlined a little too abruptly. Seldom is one aware on a first viewing of the exact moment a film loses you, but here, for me, it was when a car was set on fire and, more importantly, when we are given a point of view shot of a head underneath a car tire. It’s really not possible to continue to think of what is going on as so stupid you can’t help but laugh any more, yet the film continues on in that vein for quite some time before it trusts that you may be ready to say “okay, this is more sadistic than absurd.” Another moment–one that culminates in death–is shot in such a way as though it is supposed to be a huge shock rather than what it is–an inevitable occurrence that we’ve been waiting for, both in the scene and in the larger narrative.
What’s that got to do with the Coen brothers? I would argue that the more celebrated directorial siblings are making similar dramatic and thematic moves in their narratives, but they are better writers and, hence, able to deliver the bracing shock, the awareness of complicity. That Pain & Gain goes through some of the same moves but misfires so broadly is almost enough to convince me it is deliberate satire not just of the world but of Joel and Ethan Coen’s depictions of it. In both Pain & Gain and No Country for Old Men, the criminals justify themselves with bits of conventional wisdom that they recite like mantras and which, when symbolically tied to criminal acts, are meant (I think) to get us to see the banality and emptiness of what passes for moral thought in our culture and how accepting it as such makes our protagonists an emblem of a brainwashed generation. (My colleague, Todd Truffin, preferred to liken Pain & Gain to American Psycho, largely on these grounds, and I would be okay with both that comparison and it passing for sufficient wisdom to justify the film’s horrific existence were it still 1987.)
Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) spouts and is motivated by aphorisms about “being a doer” from Johnny Wu’s (Ken Jeong) success seminars. Paul Doyle (Johnson) opts for born again Christian sloganeering, and the ease with which the latter fluctuates between praying for his victim’s soul and bludgeoning his body ups the ante on any Bret Easton Ellis comparisons by indicting not just the conspicuous consumption of American capitalism, but by also insisting that organized religion is similarly, fraudulently empty.
Perhaps it is hard for me not to see No Country for Old Men as just a prettier, more stylish version of American Psycho with religious (or metaphysical) psychobabble substituted for commercial jingles, and for a fleeting moment while watching Pain & Gain, I thought maybe Michael Bay did too. Pain & Gain reminds us at least three times, though, that it really is, honest to goodness, a true story, and that insistence usually signals to me that the artist doesn’t want to be responsible for implying or suggesting any meaning, as though the bald assertion of truth is justification enough–a pointer towards in what direction any meaning might be found if any viewers are of the ilk that they still care to hunt for such things.
The film’s conclusion doesn’t so much make a statement about much of anything, not even about other films or other critiques of the things it might be critiquing. It comes across as saying this is an odd story, and odd enough that its extreme nature must signify…something. What that something is gets reduced more or less to the observation that these guys were really dumb. I can agree with that. Why–besides the fact that it is heroically and epically large–that dumbness must be commemorated and celebrated remains as much a mystery as why audiences think Anton Chigurh was cool.