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David Poland

By David Poland

Review: Pain & Gain (98% spoiler-free)

I have come to like and admire Michael Bay. He knows who he is as a filmmaker and he does magic tricks that no one else can do.

Does he make great films?

Hasn’t yet.

But he makes very consumable stuff. And there is often real beauty in his high-voltage, high-gloss, smoke and pastel.

Pain & Gain is an attempt at “edgy” and “so dumb it’s intelligent.” And I was rooting for the film to be great and great fun from weeks before I took a seat in the theater it screened in until the end of the film. I opened myself all the way up to every wild idea – however based on truth – and crazy visual in the movie. I love Tony Shalhoub and he was, in many ways, reprising his Men in Black performance – which I loved – here. I’ll take all the Rebel Wilson they can give me. Mark Wahlberg has become a truly great everyman actor. Have always enjoyed The Rock, whatever he was cooking. And Anthony Mackie is always terrific… not sure how he bulked up this much.

So why isn’t the movie great? Or more pointedly… why doesn’t it work?

I feel I should write, “Michael Bay,” but it isn’t a matter of putting this on Bay’s doorstep. His skill set was used and used well. But what was missing was a mad artist. What was missing was an editor who could chop off long, repetitive sections of the film. The film needed shaping from a mind that is as good at leaving things out as putting things in.

Pain & Gain collapses under the weight of its repetition of cool shit. It is a collage that never becomes a full picture.

The comparison that was dead clear to me during the movie was the late, great Tony Scott’s Domino. There is a lot of stuff I LOVE in that movie. Keira Knightley completely got me in that movie. Her romance with Edgar Ramirez gave the comedy some soft romantic edge… one that is completely absent in P&G, though there is a nod to it in the Mackie/Wilson connection. Much of the screaming in the film was fun. The stunts were often insane. Mo’Nique was a glorious racist caricature. (We can get into the fight about whether such a thing exists later.) Rourke was still close enough to this side of the crazy tracks that he was interesting and not a cartoon.

But P&G doesn’t know when to stop. It loves too much of a good thing, a bad thing… really, everything. The first act is fun… until it becomes a Russian novel as read aloud by an idiot.

A classic problem with this film… Dwayne Johnson is quite good in the movie as a 12-stepping, Jesus-loving thug. But (SPOILER… KINDA) when he falls off the wagon, the movie is so busy playing peek-a-boo with Bar Paly’s also-could-have-been-a-star-making-turn Euro-bimbo that it forgets to slow down and make a strong play with the fall of Paul (Rock). This character should have been Oscar bait. He has so many bizarre turns and twists, and Johnson seems absolutely up to the role… but the movie deserts him. There is a bit – which I won’t spoil – in the third act, where this Jesus-guy ends up doing something so outrageous that it gets a big audience laugh… but the movie has neither the time or inclination to slow down and engage with this character as he makes this choice. And there is the difference between Tarantino and an Oscar for Mr. Waltz and Pain & Gain.

Michael Bay has the brain, camera skills, and balls to make this movie a tough as it can be. But he doesn’t have the inclination to slow down and trust the drama.

At 1:40, this would have been a tight little romp of a movie. I’m not sure it would have ever been great, unless they brought in a guy like George Armitage, whose Miami Blues is, in many ways, the indie version of this film. But it’s not… it’s better. Because Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Jason-Leigh and Fred Ward were special effects enough.

P&G keeps telling us that this is a true story no matter how unbelievable. And it’s a very funny, quirky, crazy story. But it is missing the “Why?” and that is where the soul lives. The closest it gets is Mackie and Wilson, but even that is given too-short shrift.

You know who I loved in the film? (That is, beyond Larry Hankin’s cameo.) Emily Rutherfurd. She plays Mrs. DuBois, wife of Ed Harris’ character. When she in on camera, everything seems to slow down for a normal human emotion… some of the only times in the film.


I was still entertained often by Pain & Gain. A lot of the material is very broad and silly… Three Stooges with buff bods, tans, and epic skies. But I was willing to go there.

What hurt – so much – was that we, as an audience, know a lot about Wahlberg’s character within moments of meeting him. Not only do we get his mindset – the nicely faked “be rich like me, idiots” ads and seminars help – but we know what a screw-up he is, how much smarter he thinks he is than he is, and how distracted from enjoying what he worked so hard for… all clear in an instant. Gotta give Bay and Wahlberg a lot of credit for that. But then, the movie can’t stop telling us what we already know, over and over and over again until it stops being fun and becomes a bit of a chore.

True Romance is probably the best of this small, but distinct genre in post-1980 cinema. And we hoped for a return to that from Domino. And we hoped for it again here. Nope. Too much testosterone.

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14 Responses to “Review: Pain & Gain (98% spoiler-free)”

  1. chris says:

    It’s a confounding movie and I agree. Emily Rutherford is the best thing in it (heck, she’s the best thing in practically everything she does, all the way back to “The Ellen Show”). I liked Ed Harris a lot, too, but it helps that they’re the only two remotely sympathetic characters in it.

  2. SamLowry says:

    Keith Uhlich called Bay a “homophobic, misogynistic, anti-human twat” (in his tweet promoting his review, which was listed on the front page of MCN). I would’ve called him a twit…unless Uhlich knows something we don’t.

    (So does that make Bay a lesbian? That would explain so much…)

  3. Ray Pride says:

    I would guess Uhlich was using that “t” word in the English or Australian fashion.

  4. YancySkancy says:

    Uhlich probably just knows that “twat” is a common epithet, especially in British slang, that basically means “jerk.”

  5. Think says:

    How in the fuck is this his MEN IN BLACK performance?

  6. nick says:

    Domino is a masterpiece, and one of the top 5 movies TS ever directed. It’s all the Tony one could ask for in a Tony Scott movie. The Dargis review says it all.

    Bay is, and always will be, a first-rate Tony Scott impersonator.

  7. berg says:

    ditto on Domino; watch it regularly, just watched it last week in fact and listened to the Scott commentary and watched the extras … right now watching Enemy of the State – the three days of the condor of the 90s

  8. Keith Uhlich says:

    I was using it in the “We may run out of Pan Am Coffee, but we’ll never run out of T-W-A-T!” ‘Crimes of Passion’ sense.

    Or was I?

  9. chris says:

    Sorry, but “Enemy of the State” is not worthy of steaming open “Three Days of the Condor”‘s mail.

  10. Ray Pride says:


  11. berg says:

    it would be a boring world if everyone liked the same film, just saying Enemy of the State is one of the most prescient films ever made

  12. Joshua says:

    Sorta favorable (?) review from Slant:

  13. SamLowry says:

    I’ve been thinking about Keith Uhlich’s comments for a while, and combined with the obvious pandering toward China we see in IRON MAN 3 to present a Mandarin who isn’t the least bit racist or “yellow peril” or at all loyal to his comic book origins, I’m wondering why filmmakers like Bay don’t go all the way and make movies that would pander to both Chinese and white American audiences…

    Minstrel shows.

    Bay has already shown an affinity for gold-toothed shuck-n-jive numbers in his movies and he clearly doesn’t give a shit about what the critics or tastemakers might say, so why not go all out in pursuit of the money that would pour in from all ends of the racist spectrum? Whites who feel they can’t get far enough away from the inner city would love it, as would the Asian audiences who stay far away from movies with too many blacks and not enough action.

    Every episode of the hugely popular Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show is in the public domain so there must be plenty of comedy gold to be mined, and when things get too ridiculous someone could take a break and remake THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Every Stormfront member has surely heard how great the movie is, but it’s not bad enough that it’s black and white–it’s silent! You have to know how to read to know what’s going on!

    A remake is long overdue, and anyone who cares more about money than infamy should be eager to take it on.

    I think you can find a few people in Hollywood who fit that bill.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon