Another American Dream: Pain and Gain (2013)

Another American Dream:

Pain and Gain




“I don’t just want everything you have.  I want you not to have it.”


OK then, not much point in complaining about this film, really.  So here we go.  It’s directed by Michael Bay and so you know that you needn’t expect subtlety.  Bay does what he does and I enjoy the Transformers franchise as much as the next guy.  As well as that I’ve liked his movies as a producer, be it the Texas Chainsaw remakes or The Purge.

Pain and Gain opens with a voice-over telling us that this is ‘unfortunately’ a true story.  Well, it was certainly unfortunate for one of the characters and as for the rest? I thought that they got what they deserved.  It’s about three seriously thick Miami bodybuilders, led by Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), who holds such a magnetic power over the two other dimwits—Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and ‘Noel’ Doorbal ( Anthony Mackie)– that he entices them to join him in a harebrained plan to kidnap a rich local businessman, Viktor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub).

I’m not sure whether or not we’re supposed to think that these two eejits find Lugo so charismatic that they can’t resist him, but I do know that it was one of the many, many times that I thought Alright, just how true to true is this?  And yeah, I know that it’s just a movie but if it tells you it’s true then it should be just a bit believable, shouldn’t it?  Little did I know the surprise I was in for.

Lugo equates everything with physical perfection:

“When it started, America was just a bunch of scrawny colonies.  Now it’s the most buffed, pumped-up country on the planet.  That’s pretty rad.”

So far, so Miami rad, man.  But if all those steroids have led to Doorbal becoming impotent then they have seriously put the zap on Lugo’s brain-cells. Or maybe he always thought like this:

“All of my heroes are self-made:  Rocky, Scarface, all the guys from The Godfather.  They all started out with nothing and built their way to perfection.  The way to prove yourself is to better yourself.  That’s the American Dream.  I have no sympathy for people who squander their gifts.  It’s sickening.  It’s worse than sickening.  It’s unpatriotic.”

This is where it could have gotten interesting, as some kind of commentary on the unrealistic sense of entitlement that a thousand crappy reality shows have given the average moron.  And Lugo’s sense of entitlement is enormous.  But I don’t see how any audience should be sympathising with this scumbag. The screenplay quickly skims over the fact that he’s a convicted fraudster and cheap little hustler and instead concerns itself with the muscles of all involved.  And in case the guys in the audience are getting bored there is no shortage of very fit women in training shorts to ogle.

So they kidnap Kershaw (who in real life is a man called Mark Schiller), hold him in a warehouse and torture him very graphically for a month!  Yet in truth the audience feels very little here because the violence has all the urgency of a Tom & Jerry cartoon and because the guy (half-Jew, half-Columbian, all-asshole) is made to seem so awful.  And it’s to our shame that we don’t think how extraordinary and stupidly brave it is that he holds out so long.

I was numb by now and would possibly have called it a day except for the welcome arrival of the great Ed Harris as a private detective.  But it was too late and I was looking with a real weariness at Doyle burning some human remains out in the open whilst flirting with a neighbour.  And right at this point, as if Bay had read my mind, up pops the caption:  THIS IS STILL A TRUE STORY.

Incredibly, to a certain extent, so it proved.  The film was wrong in depicting the three stooges as attempting to kidnap Kershaw/Schiller three times.  It was in fact eight!  And yes, during one fiasco they did indeed camouflage themselves like soldiers in Vietnam only to realise that they would be caught in headlights anyway.  There’s a lot of stuff like that, if you want to depress yourself (or alternatively give yourself a laugh) by reading up on human stupidity.

Schiller, the real-life victim who was indeed held and tortured for a month and who lost all of his money to these louts, is less than impressed by the film. In fact, the makers never thought to even let him know that they were making one.  What they thought they would achieve here by simply changing his name, I don’t know.

[A brief aside:  one of the film’s pleasures is Dwayne Johnson, whose character is also not real but an amalgamation of three.  Still, he’s excellent as the Born Again Muscle-bound Coke Head for Jesus.)

Schiller seems to be right in saying that he has been made to look so awful in a misguided attempt to gain some sympathy for the three leads.  Alex Ferrer, the Judge who presided over the case, says in a Telegraph piece by Paul Kendall a couple of weeks ago:

“In the movie they made him out to look slimier than he was.  He really wasn’t a slimy guy.  Nobody deserves what he got.  Nobody.”

I’m obviously out of step with popular culture because I got a real shock to discover that this Judge Ferrer has his own TV show.  It’s at this point that I don’t know whether to be glad I’ll be gone and out of my misery within the next twenty years or sorry to not live longer and see just how crazy the world eventually gets.

The screenplay is by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on a series of articles in a Miami magazine.

In his direction, Bay pulls out all the stops to keep the audience’s heads spinning:  slow-motion right down to extreme; montage; freeze-frames; multiple character voice-overs; eye-straining camera angles.  He probably watched Goodfellas A LOT before he yelled ‘Action’ on this one.

But I’ve been thinking of something that Mark Schiller says in The Guardian:

“The only thing that rings true for me is the title.  My pain really did result in a lot of people’s gain.”

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Author: Charley Brady

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