He emerges from the large wall advertisement, grunting as he does his stomach crunches several stories off the ground. From a distance there’s no mistaking what he looks like: a throbbing phallus protruding from the bicep of the paragon of manhood that serves as marketing tool for a sun-bleached Miami gym.
“I’m hot! I’m big! F******k!” yells Daniel Lugo, oblivious for several seconds to the police cruisers pulling up below him. The date is June 17, 1995, and the location is Sun Gym in Miami Lakes. As it turns out, Lugo, portrayed by an overeager Mark Wahlberg, has been a very naughty boy.
The tantalizing opening scene of Pain & Gain, one of two testosterone-fueled new releases I’m reviewing this week, makes you wonder whether you’ve stepped into an alternate universe where Michael Bay, that all-American ringleader of high-octane, overwrought onscreen mayhem, is actually a serviceable storyteller. The pixie dust wears off within 15 minutes.
The story of three enterprising bodybuilders who team up to kidnap an affluent, short-tempered half-Jewish, half-Colombian businessman and torture him until he signs away his assets to them poses a challenge for the TV ad director-turned-action-maven: Is he capable, after nearly two decades of big budgets and bigger explosions, to pare down his eardrum-shattering M.O. and make a dark comedy that doesn’t rely on elaborate action sequences or in-your-face CGI? The answer is yes, in the most reprehensible way imaginable.
Pain & Gain is the Bayest Bay movie since Bad Boys II, a gut-churning blend of lead-footed “comedy,” muscular chase sequences and hamfisted social satire that’s less true-crime chronicle than chest-pounding manifesto. Its depiction of mid-1990s Miami as a cesspool of upwardly mobile schemers and filthy rich douchebags leaves precious little room for empathy, subtlety or anything remotely resembling recognizable human behavior. It’s a mean-spirited freak show that yearns for the good old days when you wouldn’t get chewed out for objectifying women, poking un-PC fun at racial minorities or basking in the glow of a moronic gay panic joke. In other words, Bay’s idea of a fun time at the movies.
Lugo is no saint, but as the film, which Bay adapted from Pete Collins’ three-part New Times series of articles, reveals, he made quite a name for himself roping in well-to-do clientele at the gym, much to the delight of John Mese, his initially skeptical boss (Rob Corddry, who should have known better). But as Victor Kershaw (a cartoonish Tony Shalhoub), one of his richest clients, makes crystal clear, he’ll always be on the outside looking in if he doesn’t take action. Enter motivational speaker Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), who pumps Lugo with enough misplaced self-esteem for him to set his seemingly foolproof plan in motion:
“1. Find a guy with money, 2. Make him give you everything he has, 3. Make America a better place.”
Lugo joins low-body-fat forces with limp-dicked malcontent Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and God-fearing jailbird Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson, playing a composite of at least two men who had a hand in Lugo’s grisly handiwork). How do we know Doyle’s a badass? He teaches a lesson to that old pastor who takes him in after doing time behind bars. As they’re standing in front of the church, the all-too-human man of God marvels at Doyle’s chiseled pecs…and then gets behind him and grabs one of them. “Why was he telling me I was buff?” ponders Doyle in voiceover. Bay cuts to Johnson and Wahlberg discussing the incident. “I almost killed him,” Doyle confesses. Bay cuts back to a long shot of Doyle clocking the lusty padre, and you can almost hear the laugh track.
Bay doesn’t stop there. He peppers the film with all kinds of penile iconography, even setting several scenes in a warehouse full of sex toys. “I’m looking at a lot of homo stuff right now,” a distressed Doyle tells Lugo on the phone as he stares in disgust at a bunch of dildos. You keep hoping for Bay to tone things down, to rein in his unpleasant instincts and simply stick to the outlandish chain of events that made the story such a riveting read. But he just can’t help himself. At an estimated $25 million, the budget may be a fraction of what he’s used to working with, but Pain & Gain still bears the trademarks of his bombastic body of work. Instead of forcing Bay to hunker down and stick to the narrative, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America: The First Avenger, the Chronicles of Narnia movies), they indulge his penchant for excess, starting with an overdose of voiceover narration that elicits unfavorable comparisons to GoodFellas. Lugo’s dialogue, in particular, sounds more like right-wing jingoistic propaganda than something he would actually say out loud. To make matters worse, pace-wise the film goes slack just as it should be building momentum, until all we’re left with is three lunkheads screaming at each other.
Are there any bright spots in Pain & Gain? Yes. Bay gets a scene between Kershaw and two police detectives who don’t believe him just right. Ed Harris’ understated turn as the detective hired to nab Lugo and his accomplices feels as if it had been lifted from another, better film. And Rebel Wilson scores some genuine laughs as Doorbal’s significant other. But trying to find good things about this waste of talent, resources and an absorbing, only-in-Miami yarn is akin to sorting through garbage. It’s not just a missed opportunity. Bay has written a poison letter to the Magic City that perpetuates virulent stereotypes while failing to shed much light on the murderous impulses that triggered a spectacular downward spiral of criminal malfeasance. Go back to playing with toy robots, Mr. Bay. Your credit’s no good here.
In a perfect world, LGBT activists would kidnap Michael Bay and force him to sit through the intriguing, self-referential essay film Interior. Leather Bar., which in the space of one hour does a more effective, well-rounded job of dramatizing heterosexual male anxiety than Pain & Gain does in 130 minutes. This potent, sexually explicit meditation on the acknowledgment of ingrained preconceptions and the creative process caused quite a stir at Sundance earlier this year and it arrives in South Florida this weekend as part of the 15th Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. It’s too bad that what’s been causing the movie to make headlines is not its frank depcition of male sexuality, but that it was co-directed by James Franco.
The ubiquitous star, alongside partner in crime Travis Mathews, attempt to reimagine part of the 40 minutes excised from William Friedkin’s 1980 gay-leather-scene murder mystery Cruising so that it could avoid an “X” rating. But that turns out to be the point of departure for a series of conversations revolving around the negative reaction to the much-maligned police thriller, from both the gay community and conservative moviegoers who couldn’t quite stomach the sight of Al Pacino portraying an undercover cop who, clad in a skin tight tank top, lets himself go on a dance floor filled with facial hair, heightened libidos, and S & M paraphernalia.
Franco and Mathews are after bigger game, though, and Interior‘s main narrative thread follows actor Val Lauren, who plays himself, as he grapples with his own biases and prejudices while breathing new life into Pacino’s role. The filmmakers alternate staged “nonfiction” scenes that show the actors, a mixture of gay and straight men, preparing for their scenes with exchanges between Lauren and Franco as the former tries to comprehend what the latter is trying to accomplish with this project. Too much of the film, actually, is devoted to an explanation of Franco and Mathews’ intentions, and as a result, it occasionally plays like a filmmaking exercise that’s a couple of drafts away from becoming an actual movie. But there’s no denying that Interior. Leather Bar. sparks a much needed dialogue between those of us who think such taboo subject matter is something to explore and celebrate and those out there whose intent is to deride and ridicule. Not that I have somebody specific in mind.
Interior. Leather Bar. screens Sunday at the Colony Theater and Thursday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque as part of the 15th Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival (mglff.com). Pain & Gain opens Friday in wide release. You have been warned.