It’s easy to forget that Michael Bay directed Pain & Gain. In fact, it’s hard not to be confused by his latest effort as it exposes the fraudulence of every myth about masculinity, materialism and the American Dream that his entire filmography reinforces and is defined by. The hyperactive idiocy and bad values typically associated with his work degrade rapidly into their realities of bleak, chaotic violence and spiritual bankruptcy. Whatever traces of comedy that may remain are pathetic, hinting only at the insanity of it all. Small wonder that this nightmarish diatribe made over one billion dollars less (seriously) at the box office than Bay’s last work, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which involved warring factions of robots racing to the moon.
What marks Pain & Gain as unique is not its view of the American Dream, but rather in its unwillingness to redefine it. The dream and history of America are portrayed for exactly what they are: the ruthless, forcible theft of other people’s place in the world. Daniel (Mark Wahlberg) doesn’t only take everything that belongs to Victor (Tony Shaloub), he forms a neighborhood watch so that nothing bad will happen from now on. There is no patriotism underlying this harrowing portrait of the American Dream. Bay demonstrates, perhaps inadvertently, Marx’s claim that in the hands of capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned….” To reemphasize this point, Victor’s private investigator Ed (Ed Harris) comments that the crimes were “un-American.”
The only sympathetic character is Paul (Dwayne Johnson in a surprisingly sensitive role), a Christian and recovering addict unable to resist the seduction of money and power. Far from being portrayed as a victim, Paul’s character is reflective of the church, weakened by prosperity gospel and eager to live up to misinterpreted scripture in order to find acceptance. Daniel tells Victor: “I don’t just want everything you have, I want you not to have it.” Conversely, Paul offers Victor his dignity in the form of food, hygiene and attention. His character, though deeply flawed, crystallizes the conflict between the unglamorous piety of Christian life and the folly of man paving his way in the world.
The film’s assessment of the American Dream is bolstered by its charges against the sex industry. The crew’s torture chamber is a warehouse for porn and sex toys, a setting that intensifies the depravity of the American Dream. (In fact, one might mark the genesis of Paul’s descent at his moment of awe in discovering a fake vagina.) By rightly casting the sex industry as an intersection of violence and commerce congruent with the central kidnapping plot, the filmmakers argue for the inevitable failure of instant gratification, regardless of how it manifests.
This is demonstrated later in the movie during a role-playing exercise at Daniel’s attempt at forming a neighborhood watch. The proposed scenario is the rape of Paul’s stripper girlfriend Sorina (Bar Paly). Daniel asks “Who wants to volunteer to be a rapist?” to which every man present – many of whom are married – jumps to his feet for the opportunity. This moment, though cartoonishly ugly, is not meant to be funny. The grim spectacle actually suggests that the average male will readily transgress all boundaries for a chance to pretend to commit a horrific sex crime. This depressing hypothesis is linked at once to the group’s criminal behavior and the sex industry, thus bringing the two previously unconnected realms of violence and sex into relation to one another. Considering that the movie revolves around the American Dream, it seems perfect that the meeting ground for these two realms should be on the level of family and community, which is ultimately where the impact of such insanity eventually has the gravest impact.
Ultimately, the film is redemptive, although its redemption is hard earned. Daniel’s stubborn insistence on the value of the American Dream is not prosperous in any sense of the term. Instead, the proposed paths to true success are the challenging and often thankless commitments that accompany religion and marriage. Far from the shine of material gain, these pursuits demand honesty, perseverance and self-sacrifice. As previously mentioned, Pain & Gain does not attempt to redefine the American Dream. It does, however, envision a better, more substantial and truly fulfilling dream.