Pain & Gain
Before the Pain & Gain press-screening started, a representative for body building products stood upfront and made a pitch. She held up some sort of powder-based fitness product and, with one verbal slip, perfectly described the ensuing movie: “don’t worry,” she said, “it has no substance.”
Pain & Gain is based on an incredible, horrifying true story written by Pete Collins, and this is part of its problem. The real story revolves around the Sun Gym Gang, a group of body-lifters who kidnapped multiple people in an attempt to gain all of their assets. For their first victim, this required a full month of severe torture in a hidden warehouse. The talent behind Pain & Gain, apparently, thought that this sounded like great material for comedy.
I wrestled with this one for a while. There is a place for dark comedy and it would almost be too easy to come down on the morality of Pain & Gain. At the end of the day, it's just entertainment, right? But this is a film that reminds its audience that they are watching a true story multiple times throughout. In other words, part of its appeal is meant to come from this reaction: “wait, this happened in real life?” If the nature of the actual story is meant to play into its reception, I think we’re allowed to talk about it seriously.
But cautionary morality tales like this one are difficult to pull off because they require us to empathize with people performing extremely base actions. When they are done well (ex: There Will Be Blood), that empathy becomes humbling and you leave the theater reexamining your own life and what lines you are willing to cross. When it is done poorly (ex: Scarface, which, ironically, our protagonist praises in the opening minutes), you just want to do drugs and die firing grenades at thugs. With the latter, the “morality tale” is really just vicarious hedonism that ends with some kind of judgment to make up for everything that came before.
Pain & Gain falls more into Scarface territory, but with the addition of working very hard for laughs. Of course, for a story that hones in on torture, this requires the filmmakers to do a few things. Firstly, they downplay the malice of the gang; essentially making it look like they just kinda “fell” into their various crimes. Next, they make the victims as despicable as possible. The assumption here being that, somewhere in the back of your mind, you’ll think that the victims deserved it and feel a little more comfortable with the torture on screen. Then there are the little touches, like filling up the warehouse (their torture home base) with sex toys. Maybe the gang could talk about how the toys work during some of the torture. Hilarious.
Much has been made of Michael Bay’s sexism on screen, so I won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say that there is only one competent female character in the movie and she gets around four lines of dialogue. The rest are mostly strippers who spend the movie in various stages of undress (which, I guess, is the point). There are a few sex sequences, and they are supposed to be funny but are only degrading. A marriage is brought to ruin as one of the wives realizes what her husband is up to. By the end, it is played for a joke. In real life the woman couldn’t sleep, “haunted by the bloodstains” that she had helped cover up.
There is a potentially powerful story buried in here. For a country obsessed with youth and appearances, a story about a steroid-using gang has plenty of potential social critique. But the movie only fakes serious social commentary. If you’ve got free time this weekend, don’t go see Pain & Gain; read the news story instead: it's an incredible piece of journalism. It will take less time and be just as shocking. Just be warned: I promise you won’t be laughing.