FRESH POUR: Pain & Gain (2013) / The Big Wedding (2013)

Clint takes a look at two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

Pain & Gain / dir. Michael Bay / Paramount Pictures

pain-and-gain-poster-finalMichael Bay is, to put it mildly, a divisive filmmaker – his works have been called some of the worst movies ever made, and his love of explosions, hot chicks and fast-paced entertainment have earned him pejoratives like “hack,” “MTV frat boy,” etc. To an extent, I can most certainly agree that some of his most popular and well-known films (the Transformers series, Pearl Harbor) are greatly dumb, and often quite clumsily put together. However, he’s still the guy who has made surprisingly decent schlock like The Rock and The Island, and few can argue that he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. With Pain & Gain, Bay has actually managed to shake the constraints of big-budget action fests and done something that fits his Miami Vice-on-crack visual style: make a hilarious crime comedy on par with the Coen Brothers’ Fargo.

The film follows the “unfortunately true” story of Daniel Lugo (a pumped Mark Wahlberg), a disenfranchised personal trainer with an eye for the American Dream. Obsessed with his body and the prospect of becoming what a sleazy self-help guru (Ken Jeong) calls a “doer” instead of a “don’t-er,” Lugo brings on two of his bodybuilder friends – steroid-pumped impotent dumbass Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and ex-con born-again gentle giant Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to kidnap, torture and extort money from Jewish fat cat Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub).

Here’s where it gets interesting, though, and the comparisons to Fargo become more appropriate: these three are complete and utter dumbasses, and their plan (and lives) start to quickly fall apart under the weight of their egos, their inexperience and their sheer, ballsy naïveté. Bay makes great use of multiple voiceovers and narration to give us the inside scoop on each character’s motivations and principles, including Kershaw and the PI he hires (Ed Harris) to get revenge on the guys who stole money from him. As usual, Bay’s direction is slick, but now that he doesn’t have to focus on blinding, incoherent action, the stylized elements allow the silliness of the actual story to be mined even further for brilliant comedy. At one point, during the film’s most ridiculous moment, Bay even stops the movie to fling up a piece of interstitial text that reminds us “This is STILL a True Story.” The movie is full of these gleefully energetic touches, making Pain & Gain a fun one to watch.

This film is also, surprisingly, Bay’s most philosophical movie to date. Through the actions of Lugo and his cohorts, we see the breakdown of the American Dream – Lugo and others pack themselves into hotel conference rooms to hear people regurgitate AA speeches, repurposed to make them money telling you how to make money. Lugo and Doorbal have incredible body issues, from Lugo’s desire to get even more pumped to Doorbal’s steroid use and the impotence that follows. Doyle, meanwhile, is earnestly trying to follow the right path, but eventually gets drawn in by the money, drugs and sex that their initially-successful heist nabs them. (Johnson is easily the best part of this movie, as he channels his natural charisma into this wonderful character whose descent into darkness is fascinating – and hilarious – to watch.) Even Kershaw’s hard-earned money can’t save him from being beaten and tortured, and Ed Harris’ detective finds his own retirement boring, feeling the need to do something instead of reveling in his hard-earned material pleasures.

The ballsiest move Bay makes is at the very end – after we’ve all had our fun laughing at the dumbasses goofing around and cooking severed hands on a charcoal grill – when the movie reminds us once again that these were people. We are told the fates of the real guys: two of them sentenced to death row and another one (the one least involved in the scheme) dying in prison despite having a lighter sentence. It’s a strangely disquieting moment, made even queasier as Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” plays over splashes of neon paint and stenciled text. Bay flaunts the grim reality of this crazy caper in your face at the end, proving to me what the film had been visually telling me all along – this guy just might be a master satirist, drenching his critical messages in exactly the kind of hyperkinetic sheen that might fool less discerning minds into unironically cheering for these self-styled folk heroes.

I really want to pair this with Spring Breakers (one of the other best movies of the year so far), since I think they would go well together – two neon-tinged movies about crime and money in Miami, with dumb protagonists chasing the American Dream and finding more than they bargained for. There’s a surprising amount of earnest profundity in the middle of this chaotic, energetic and hilarious film, and I highly recommend seeing it. Don’t be scared by the name ‘Michael Bay’ – he’s a smart filmmaker when he’s not working with big CG robots.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It

Drinking Rules for Pain & Gain:
1) Drink whenever you see crosses or Christian slogans
2) Drink anytime the film changes narrators
3) Drink for every piece of interstitial text
Finish Your Drink When:
Ed Harris’ wife mutters, “Every man has to fight for his dignity.”

The Big Wedding / dir. Justin Zackham / Lionsgate

The-Big-WeddingIt’s a funny thing, doing these paired film reviews – you start to notice some strange similarities between two wildly different films. Like in Pain & Gain, The Big Wedding features characters who have both a) a troublesome relationship with religion and b) struggles with their sobriety. In Pain & Gain, this is used to give Dwayne Johnson’s character a certain tragic quality, as he falls back into a life of crime and evildoing because he falls victim to his temptations.

In The Big Wedding, however, the sober character’s relapse is treated as a thin joke meant to reveal plot points, after which it’s never mentioned again (and he’s immediately sober after relaying the needed information without inhibition). Such is the difference between Pain & Gain and The Big Wedding; we’re meant to laugh at the stupidity of the former film’s characters, while in the latter we’re meant to sympathize and relate to them by the end.

Suffice to say, it doesn’t work.

The Big Wedding is yet another of those Meet the Parents/The Family Stone-esque romantic family comedies tailor-made to take your oversharing mother to – it features older actors they remember (Robert De Niro, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton and Robin Williams – all wasted here, by the way), plenty of raunchy-yet-actually-pretty-safe sex and drug jokes to scandalize your mother into laughter, and hot young stars from those TV shows she puts on during dinner (Katherine Heigl and Topher Grace).

The story is deceptively simple yet implicitly offensive: the dysfunctional yet well off Griffin family  – holy fuck, I see what they just did there – is about to marry their adopted Colombian son Alejandro (Ben Barnes, a British dude with a spray tan acting like a Latino) to bland WASP Amanda Seyfried. Soon, though, Alejandro reveals that a) he’s invited his Spanish-speaking, super-Catholic stereotype of a mother Madonna (get it?!) to the wedding, and b) he hasn’t revealed that De Niro and Keaton are actually divorced, and De Niro is eating out his girlfriend Sarandon in the house that he and Keaton built instead. What results is the typical (and completely hamfisted) comedy of errors that will leave you scratching your head while your mother chuckles heartily in the theater.*

There’s not much to say about The Big Wedding, because it all pretends to be so inoffensive, desperately working to entertain you while working as little as possible to actually make you enjoy yourself. However, as with most of these kinds of movies, there’s also a pernicious undercurrent of racism, misogyny and homophobia that drips from this movie like a sponge of prejudice that’s being wrung out over the sink. (I am not good at metaphors.) Basically, this movie doesn’t know what Latinos are, as evidenced by the casting of an orange-tinted British actor as your leading non-white character – though to be fair, Ben Barnes looks just about as confused as I am at the fact he is playing this role. The white characters of the film treat speaking Spanish or being nonwhite as some sort of alien custom that everyone has to grit their teeth to get through – there are so many scenes of white people half-assing pigeon Spanish or overemphasizing Spanish accents in order to clumsily and confusedly communicate with people who have a different skin color. The whole thing is made even grosser by the fact that the main characters actively sneer at Seyfried’s parents, who are painted as the real racists, when the protagonists are basically just as sheltered and uncomfortable as they are.

The characters are all unrepentant jerks, and again, in this film you are meant to root for them. This is the kind of movie with a dysfunctional family that learns to love each other by the end, and you’re supposed to say ‘aww.’ Looking at the actions of the characters, though, that gets harder and harder – De Niro pushes away his current girlfriend (Sarandon), sleeps with his ex-wife during their ruse (Keaton), but then gets off the hook because everyone in this love triangle has basically slept with everyone else, so I guess all is forgiven because everyone’s just terrible anyway.

The kids aren’t much better: Katherine Heigl’s role is in a vacuum, as her conflict happens entirely off screen, every scene with her featuring her character ruminating on this non-conflict that is only hinted at and then conveniently resolved once the other party in the conflict finally enters the movie. Topher Grace, meanwhile, is a hot 29-year-old virgin doctor who decides to wait for love, but then gets hot for his future sister-in-law because she skinny dips around him and jerks him off under a table during dinner. (Oh, so Latinos are both laughably strict religious types and young exoticized sluts. Got it, movie.) Meanwhile, Barnes and Seyfried stand around acting like the plot points with legs that they are.

I could go on about the homophobia (Seyfried’s mom’s bisexuality is revealed to her, the film painting her as a middle-aged swinger weirdo, and Seyfriend spends the rest of the movie in a daze, complaining that her mom is a “part-time lesbian”), Robin William’s look of shame throughout most of the film, the oddly profane nature of what styles itself to be an innocuous family comedy, etc., but I won’t. It’s all too exhausting, and the film really isn’t worth it. All I will say is that I hope the stars’ salaries from this film help them to buy more wonderful plastic surgery, and encourage them to be in good movies again. Come on, De Niro, you just started trying again with Silver Linings Playbook; don’t blow it for us again.

*Full Disclosure: I did not actually take my mother to see this movie.

Drinking Rules for The Big Wedding:
1) Drink for out-of-place and tonally crass profanity
2) Drink whenever the film pauses for laughter after an unfunny joke
3) Drink every time someone who isn’t a white straight person is discussed or treated with discomfort or scorn
Finish Your Drink When:
Missy (Amanda Seyfried) says, “My mother’s a part-time lesbian.”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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