Moments before starting the film Pain & Gain I remarked out loud that there is a small but enthusiastic community of critics and film aficionados that have reviewed Michael Bay’s films and consider him to be an under appreciated genius for his technical skills as a filmmaker. I won’t deny his talent as an action oriented auteur with a penchant for music video style energy and a fetishistic obsession with explosions, guns, and morbidly perfect human specimens. He’s the offspring of an anthropomorphic copy of Maxim magazine that bred with a living issue of Guns & Ammo that has been possessed by the insane demonized soul of Orson Welles who, for some reason, has a near constant erection. Michael Bay’s body of work is the embodiment of a fevered masturbatory fantasy envisioned by a pubescent teenage boy in the throes of an orgasm surrounded by pinup centerfolds in a dingy, shadowed basement, Ratt blasting out of second hand boom box that sits underneath a well worn VHS copy of Fast Times at Ridgemont High freeze framed on the scene of Phoebe Cates removing her bikini top. He’s a guilty pleasure, a firebug, an insipid preening alpha male peddling Mountain Dew, Cadillac, Ford Chevy, Coke, Pepsi, whoever cuts a check. Michael Bay thinks that black people only communicate by yelling at each other, that anything gay or unmasculine is hilarious, and that the only desirable women in the world model for Victoria’s Secret and are frequently covered in a thin sheen of odorless sweat. Calling him jingoistic is akin to calling Leonard Da Vinci a hobbyist. Although The Rock holds a special place in my heart, it’s safe to say that I am not a fan.
Criticizing the man, as I’ve pointed out, is distressingly easy. There is really no sport to it, he seems like the kind of person you could make fun of to his face and he would either not understand at all or be unable to hear over the sound of the money he has made jangling around in the enormous Scrooge McDuck style bank vault he no doubt has constructed on some remote desert island populated by nubile coked out Hungarian porn actresses engaged in a never-ending orgy on the hoods and rooftops of Lamborghini, Bugatti, Ferrari that are stacked on top of each other like pancakes, all the while Bay laughs maniacally while observing the action on a football field sized Lazy Susan that he has constructed in order to constantly rotate 360 degrees around whatever is happening at all times. I digress.
Criticizing the man is easy but complimenting him is more so, his movies make a lot of money and they can be a lot of fun if you turn your brain off and just let go of sanity for a couple hours. I don’t hate the man, he has filled a niche market that appeals to a large audience that constantly complains about his work but inevitably trucks out to the theaters to see it anyway and that I appreciate: the absolute willingness to keep doing what you love no matter how much people criticize or lambast you for it. I’m now remembering Pearl Harbor and I take it back, I do hate the man, I really do. And not because it is a terrible, long, poorly acted, badly written, nonsensical attempt to rip off the Titanic formula of historic tragedy plus love story equals mass appeal, but because the attack on Pearl Harbor was a pretty significant point in American History. It was kind of a big deal and his treatment of it was a pretty clear money grab, a manufactured piece of treacle with no real respect for the survivors or the victims. As something of a history buff with a fascination with World War II, this was a sobering moment for the American people in an uncertain time and that was one thing that Bay did not seem to be while making that movie: sober.
Which brings me to Pain & Gain and the words I never thought I would say about a Michael Bay film: the man is a genius. I’m not going to argue that it is perfect, or brilliant, or an indication that he has finally matured as a filmmaker. It’s not revolutionary, he recycles all the classic Bay camera work. It is, however, chauvinistic, superficial, visually noisy, mildly homophobic, and more than a little vain but it’s absolutely supposed to be. Because here is what the man did in selecting this film to direct: he took all the things that people criticize about his filmmaking and turn them into qualities because this film is a comedy and it’s hilarious. Take Mark Wahlberg and his manic energy from The Other Guys and combine it with the vainglorious self obsession in the latter half of Boogie Nights. Throw in The Rock, who is a fully capable comedic actor in his own right, and subtract the things that make Bay’s work so overwrought and ridiculous, (i.e. twenty minute car chases, massive inconsequential explosions, endless interminable gun fights). Add these things to a Based on a True Story plot that (the following statement is going to get me struck by lightning thrown by the God of film critics) is more than a little reminiscent of the Coen brothers. Bear with me: a couple of guys decide to commit a crime. Because these guys are complete idiots, the plan starts to go wrong. Things get more complex, things go more wrong, before they know it everything is spiraling out of control and a story that was pretty surreal to begin with becomes otherworldly where Bay takes a moment to (hilariously) remind the audience that it’s still a true story.
I really don’t know why there was so much critical backlash against this film, I found it incredibly entertaining, funny, and as ludicrous as I expected. What harm it has done to other writer’s psyches I will never know. It’s Marky Mark, The Rock, and the director of Armageddon. What did you think was going to happen? Obviously, my expectations were pretty low to begin with and if some critics wanted to commit ritualized seppuku after seeing it that’s too bad. I had a great time.