There are no guarantees in the movie business but one thing most commentators will agree on is that pairing the right filmmaker with the right material is a pre-requisite for artistic success. It’s by no means the only determinate of what works but it’s a great start; it gives the film its best chance of life.
Now consider the least appropriate living director to dramatise the real world misadventures of imbecilic body builder Daniel Lugo; a greedy gym instructor and obnoxious body fascist, who recruited a couple of fellow meat heads to kidnap a rich client and acquire his estate using extortion. When that worked he tried again, only this time he botched it and two people were murdered. If Pain and Gain’s to be believed, Lugo and his confederates feitishized the human body, were steeped in misogyny, and had scant intelligence, emotional or otherwise. Their story is brought to the screen by Michael Bay.
There’s comes a point in this pinch yourself exercise in which Emily Rutherfurd, playing the wife of a private investigator phoned in by Bay alumnus Ed Harris, notes “every man must fight for his dignity”. No shit; so too every woman, fatty, actor and filmmaker. Yet none emerge from this grotesque circus with anything worthy of the name. No one, it seems, fought hard enough.
Bay’s pornographic eye is particularly hard on those that don’t meet his or Lugo’s idea of physical perfection. It’s one thing for the screenplay to make an antagonist of Lugo, citing his pronouncements on those that “waste their potential” as evidence of his wrongheaded philosophy – quite another for the director to see the world through similar eyes.
In a story where facts speak for themselves and a dispassionate account would have served them very well, it boggles the mind that such a garish, broad and mean spirited treatment made it to the screen. Bay’s camera takes in every contour of the sculpted bodies on display, leering at the rest. It’s as though a casting call went out to Florida’s chunks, asking if they’d trade their souls for a brief moment of big screen stardom. Yes, Mr Bay would be mocking them, much as the movie’s foul characters do, spearheaded by a gormless Mark Wahlberg, but they’d get to meet the visionary behind Transformers. These images, incidentally, have the potential to exist for all time.
And what of the friends and families of the murdered couple, Frank Griga and Krisztina Furton? Would they have shared in the mirth Bay’s extracted from the victims’ deaths and subsequent dismemberment? One can imagine them holding their sides as Anthony Mackie plays with the deceased woman’s breasts. It’s sometimes said that a real world death confers a responsibility on any filmmaker dramatising the same to treat their subject with a modicum of respect, but all credit to Bay, he’s consistent. Here the victims, though representations of real individuals, get the same treatment as the topless corpse in Bad Boys II.
What drew Bay to this story? The murder? The mystery? History suggests an answer. Years after she was cast into the movie making wilderness, Leni Riefenstahl, the infamous Nazi propagandist, whose Triumph of the Will and Olympia were held up as the quintessence of fascist art, photographed a Sudanese tribe for what became a bestselling book, The Last of the Nuba. Though she denied it to the end of her long life, the book was cited as further evidence of her innate Hitlerism. Exhibit A? The aesthetic: the pictures celebrating strength, virility and power. Watching Pain and Gain one notes similar obsessions. How, you’re entitled to ask, can a director critique this stuff when he’s so clearly getting off on it?