It’s possible, but not easy, to make a comedy about murder, torture and kidnapping in which the protagonists are the murderers, torturers and kidnappers.
Take Fargo as an example of how to do it right, and Pain and Gain as an example of how to do it wrong.
The latter proves unable to grasp the delicate balance between slapstick and satire, instead opting for a cartoonish approach that tries to generate laughs and sympathy by turning its villains into bumbling idiots.
The film marks a change of pace for director Michael Bay (Transformers), who takes a break from his big-budget special-effects bonanzas for what amounts to a buddy comedy. Taking advantage of his tropical locales, he brings energy and visual flair to material that’s hardly worth the effort.
The story is based on the true-life adventures of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a charismatic but ill-tempered mid-1990s Florida bodybuilder who tries to supplement his income as a personal trainer with a series of get-rich-quick schemes. A motivational speaker prompts him to enlist the help of a pious ex-con (Dwayne Johnson) and a dim-witted fellow trainer (Anthony Mackie) who has taken too many steroids.
The target for their extortion is Victor (Tony Shalhoub), an affluent scumbag who lives on the edge of the law, but whose resiliency threatens to collapse Daniel’s entire plan.
Bay exhibits plenty of reckless style, but he doesn’t offer much resistance to the lack of subtlety in the self-indulgent script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America). The story calls for fewer broad sight gags and more clever satire about fame and excess, along with body image.
One fundamental problem is the absence of sympathetic characters, or even those with somewhat endearing motives. After diverting its attention toward various irrelevant subplots (and persistently silly narration), the film comes off the rails in the final act, when the crime starts to unravel in predictable fashion and the story grinds toward an obvious conclusion.
At least give the cast credit for looking the part. Johnson had a head start in terms of muscle, but Wahlberg and Mackie obviously pumped some iron prior to production. The quirky supporting cast includes such recognizable faces as Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson and Rob Corddry.
The lead trio might be physically imposing, but like their characters, the film is all brawn and no brains.
Rated R, 129 minutes.