Leave it to Michael Bay to spend $26 million making a low-budget comedy. If that sounds like a robust price tag for "Pain & Gain," his new true-crime-inspired tale about three Miami gym rats who kidnap and extort a wealthy sandwich shop owner, consider that Bay is the director of such pricey special-effects-laden blockbusters as "Armageddon" and the "Transformers" films.
But while "Pain & Gain" should earn a healthy return on the investment — it's expected to debut at No. 1 at the box office this weekend, to the tune of $23 million — the film is faring poorly with movie critics, most of whom find it shiny on the surface but hollow underneath.
In one of the more positive (but still mixed) reviews, The Times' Betsy Sharkey says the setup "makes for some stupid/slap-shtick fun of the Stooges variety," and the script is "bad to the bone with mixed results."
In the lead role, Mark Wahlberg is "responsible for much of the heavy lifting and he does a decent job of making the movie more bearable," Sharkey says. "Meanwhile, [Dwayne] Johnson's Paul is really quite funny as the biggest dolt and the guy who's got religion." (Anthony Mackie rounds out the trio.) For what it's worth, Bay's "sense of extreme, excess, over-the-top everything is there from start to finish."
A.O. Scott gives "Pain & Gain" an ambivalent review in the New York Times, describing it as "two hours of sweat, blood and cheerful, nasty vulgarity, punctuated by voice-over ruminations about Jesus, physical fitness and the American dream, along with a few tactical visits to a strip club. It all leaves you pondering whether you have just seen a monumentally stupid movie or a brilliant movie about the nature and consequences of stupidity."
The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern is less ponderous, writing, "Michael Bay's absurdist comedy is all pain, no gain and an utter monstrosity. It may be the most unpleasant movie I've ever seen." It's less a story, he says, than "a euphemism for willed chaos set in Miami Beach and distantly descended from fact … with a give-thanks-for-what-you-have homily bolted on." Despite Bay's stripped-down approach, his latest offering "turns out to be not only hollow and assaultive, but frenzied, madly violent and skullnumbingly loud."
Ty Burr of the Boston Globe similarly calls "Pain & Gain" a "jokey but fatally tone-deaf true-crime caper [that] plays like 'Fargo' for idiots. It's final proof, if you need it, that Bay is a director of great mechanical skill and no discernible talent, which means that he can pull off a camera shot or an action sequence to make you gasp but is hapless at making a movie that holds together for more than five minutes at a time, let alone from one end to the other."
NPR's Scott Tobias says that early in the film, "Wahlberg's excited monologues … can be a gas." But, Tobias adds, "as the film grinds along, Bay's exhausting supply of macho consumerist images — from the fleets of Lamborghinis to the low-angle buffet of South Beach hard bodies — undercut the film's attempts at social commentary. He's the last person in Hollywood who has any business decrying the consequences of a culture that encourages taking shortcuts and living large."
Like Scott in the New York Times, Slate's Dana Stevens is somewhat equivocal. "I'm still not sure whether to mildly like or mildly hate this movie," she writes. "Pain & Gain," she says, is "a deeply cynical film — and yet, at the same time, a weirdly playful one, with a manic, reckless energy and vulgar humor that it's hard not to respond to. In the last half especially, it's as if Bay is deliberately driving character development, narrative coherence, and tonal consistency off a cliff just to stand by and laugh maniacally as the debris and carnage come hurtling down."
Perhaps Stevens shouldn't sound too surprised. Even at the bargain price of $26 million, debris and carnage are what Michael Bay movies are all about.
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