For a Michael Bay movie, Pain & Gain is getting remarkably good reviews and positive buzz — even its negative notices are full of phrases like “the most charming Michael Bay movie in a long while.” The primary question that the film’s pro and con critics seem to be arguing over is whether Bay is satirizing the flashy excesses and over-the-top elements of the narrative or reveling in them; it’s a story about the quest for conspicuous consumption, from a filmmaker as obsessed with the idea as his characters. Complicating that question is Pain & Gain’s roots as a true story; it happened in Miami in 1994 and 1995, in the world of bodybuilding and fitness clubs. And how accurate is it to that world? I decided to find out by seeing the movie with a bodybuilder and personal trainer.
Louis Guarino, 25, is a certified personal trainer who works primarily out of Hoboken, New Jersey. He’s been lifting and building since he was 18, and spends most of his day in gyms (the morning after our movie-going voyage, he had clients every hour on the hour from 6 am forward). “Not gonna lie,” he told me in an email before our press screening, “waited a year for this movie.”
Mark Walhberg stars as Daniel Lugo, first seen on the run from police. “My name is Daniel Lugo,” he tells us, in voice-over, “and I believe in fitness.” Daniel is the head personal trainer at a health club in Miami, but he longs for the Good Life — and when he meets Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), a particularly obnoxious millionaire client, he thinks he’s got a shortcut to it. With the help of fellow employees and musclemen Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), he kidnaps Kershaw and gets him to sign over all of his assets. And that’s when it gets complicated.
Guarino’s spent a little time in Miami, so I asked first of all about the film’s fidelity to that particular scene. “There’s cultures in every pocket,” he told me, “everybody wants to lose fat, everybody wants to look a certain way… And being down in Miami, look, it’s hot. Virtually all year. Everybody wants to be in bikinis, everybody wants to be in shorts, nobody wants to look like crap. So there’s definitely a culture down there that I’ve seen.” And what about how Bay’s frames are filled with ridiculously good-looking, perfectly sculpted bodies? Guarino says that for Miami, that’s about right. “When I go to the beach, it’s very rare that you see anybody genuinely look bad.”
So what about the characters? Those ring true as well, our guide says. With Wahlberg’s Lugo, the ripped gym rat, “you will find that in the most hardcore gyms… these are the guys who take bodybuilding seriously.” Johnson’s Paul, the most ripped of the trio, is also a kindhearted soul who is sternly religious (at the beginning, anyway) and almost apologetic for his toughness (“Jesus Christ himself has blessed me with many gifts,” he tells one victim. “One of them is knocking people the fuck out”). This, too, was very familiar to Guarino. “In real life, that’s generally how it works,” he told me. “The biggest guys usually are the biggest softies.”
Mackie’s Adrian is newer to the world of fitness, and when he first meets Paul, he inundates him with questions about proteins, shakes, amino acids. During that scene, I heard Guarino mutter, “Always got one of those,” and after the movie, he explained: “This is your average Joe. Everybody wants to know what supplements you take, what kind of protein do you take? You take amino acids, what kind of amino acids do you take? Do you take ‘em in pills or do you take ‘em in powders? … it’s never-ending.”
The portrait of their place of employment, which Guarino dubbed a “big box gym,” also struck him as just about right, even though the film was set nearly two decades ago (“some things never change”). But the thing he found most accurate and true? “People see personal trainers literally like a therapist. Kershaw, at the beginning of the movie, was speaking about every single one of his problems… and even Lugo said, ‘I sit here, I spot, I give them a sense of confidence, that’s all I do.’ Unfortunately, that’s the mentality of a lot of personal trainers. That I have my clientele, I’m going to spot them, give them a high-five, and call it a day.” Guarino prides himself on working harder than that. But has he ever had a client as irritating as Kershaw? “Of course! It’s human nature. You’re not gonna get along with everybody. And the learning process is literally learning to bite your tongue.”
Obviously, once the crime element takes over, the film is less true to Guarino’s experiences — though it should be noted that Bay and his writers reportedly stay fairly faithful to the real events. (One of the biggest laughs comes very late in the film, during a particularly grisly scene, which Bay interrupts with the onscreen text “THIS IS STILL A TRUE STORY.”) Still, something about it doesn’t sit right. When the story gets dark, Bay plays the violence too straight and too graphic — especially considering how quickly he shifts into snickering at a dead woman and her breast implants. Maybe he’s trying to do GoodFellas-style dark comedy (the copious voice-overs would certainly suggest it), but put as charitably as possible, Bay is no Scorsese. He wants to have it both ways: get the shock of the sudden violence, and then laugh at the victims. But the whole movie is like that; the line between satire and self-parody is so thin that it’s hard to believe this iteration of his swooping-camera, glistening-abs aesthetic is comic, just because it’s being sold as such (especially when so many of the “jokes” are of the misogynist, homophobic, fat, dick, rape, and little-person variety — much like the comic relief in his action movies). There are funny moments, particularly in the first act. But it’s still a pretty ugly movie.
That’s just my take, though, and Louis and I agreed to disagree. His review: “The Rock genuinely was hysterical. The movie’s entertaining. In a very sick, twisted way, it was funny… If you love bodybuilding, if you love fitness, if you’re into the whole Miami scene, go see it. It’s a good movie. And the story itself is crazy. You can’t make that up.”
Pain & Gain is out today in wide release.