Making an enjoyable film that follows characters audiences will hate is difficult. It’s one thing to make a biopic about a historical figure that committed genocide, and is therefore relevant on a global level. It’s entirely different to make a film about three dumb jerks who committed local crimes roughly a decade ago. That’s not to say that this story shouldn’t be told, but if there’s an argument that making the protagonists to a two-hour-long film completely unlikeable will lead to a satisfying story, Pain and Gain isn’t it.
Based on a true story; it’s 1995 in Miami, FL, and Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a personal trainer with grand ambitions to join the upper class. He’s already tried to take a shortcut once by defrauding faithful investors, which landed him in jail, but after walking a straight and narrow path for a few years, he’s ready to reach for the brass ring once more when he takes on a new and very rich client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Recruiting fellow bodybuilder friends, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), the three hatch a plan to kidnap Victor and force him to sign over all of his assets. The trio is successful, but they make the mistake of not ensuring Victor’s death, and once he’s on his feet again, Victor hires private investigator Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) to right what went wrong.
Pain and Gain is based on a true story, and it definitely feels like it. The film doesn’t fit neatly in the three-act structure most movies have at their core. The first act is very long, taking its time to introduce characters and their histories and relationships. The story doesn’t feel like it gets much traction until well into the movie. However, the film’s ability to tell a story that has myriad moving parts and several involved characters is one of the production’s strong points. While not every character is important to tell the main story – Bar Paly’s character Sorina Luminita is especially extraneous – their involvement never hinders the film, and their scenes are always interesting to watch.
It’s the main characters that are supremely off-putting. Daniel and Adrian are both meathead jerks, who are willing to do truly despicable things to other people for money. Paul acts as the conscience for the group for a time, but eventually succumbs and joins in the evilness. Watching them steal, torture, kill and dismember leaves nothing left for audiences to root for. The fact that their victim, Victor, is a jerk, and that it’s satisfying to watch a rich guy get robbed in today’s class warfare-centric culture, does mitigate the distaste audiences will have for Daniel and his crew, but this is a fig leaf of protection at best. Instead, the film relies on comedy to rehabilitate the characters.
Unfortunately, Pain and Gain just isn’t that funny. There are some interesting bits, but there isn’t strong enough dialogue or sight gags to really make them pay off. For instance, after Daniel, Paul and Adrian think they’ve finally killed Victor, the three guys bicker about it, none of them wanting to take responsibility. This could have been a great moment of comic relief following a dark and serious moment, but it resolves too fast without much dialogue to support it. Another bit shows Paul, a devout Christian, forced to keep watch at the guys’ safe house, which also happens to be a sex toy warehouse. This might work if Paul was bothered instead of intrigued by the all the toys or if the film hadn’t already bashed Christianity by featuring a predatory homosexual Catholic priest early on. Instead, the bit devolves into a sight gag of anatomically realistic dildos hanging from display racks.
Despite the issues that hamper the film, the cast can’t be blamed. All of the actors turn in adequate performances, but there isn’t much here to really challenge them. Wahlberg gets all the choice lines as he barks orders and insults at everyone around him. Johnson gets to flex his acting muscles a bit as his Christian ways fall to the wayside in exchange for a life of booze and cocaine. Rebel Wilson, who plays a penis medical specialist, is her reliable funny self, saying outrageous things with an impossibly deadpan expression. If nothing else, the guys are hunky and the girls drip sexiness, but that will only get audiences so far, and Pain and Gain is a very long movie.