In Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain a nightmarish, sun-baked idea of the American Dream emerges, marred by crime, violence and madness. However, despite what many have said, Bay’s film is not so much a moral critique of a specific lifestyle or belief system. Instead, it conveys a more intriguing truth. The American Dream is ultimately a flawed, unrealistic concept, with the contentment it promises being incongruent with the insatiable constitution of the human being. The film ruminates on this topic, suggesting that, due to happiness being ultimately ephemeral, the American Dream gradually calls for the amplification of pleasure – which is unsustainable. Thus, the film posits that the only way to ensure the longevity of an American Dream is through temporarily depriving oneself of pleasure, and returning to a state of adversity – which is where human beings flourish.

Pain and Gain focuses on a trio of meathead bodybuilders played by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Anthony Mackie, who through the search for their “American Dream” become mired in a kidnapping plot that goes horribly wrong. The main feature that unites these three men is their cluelessness and their egocentricity, which Bay establishes by subversively using his well-established aesthetic tropes. One example of this is the introduction of The Rock’s character: the coke-snorting, Jesus-loving Paul Doyle, who saunters into the film via one of the Bayster’s patented canted angles. The powerful, macho, even heroic effect of this shot is then immediately undercut with a sequence featuring Doyle balking at the nefarious plotting of Wahlberg’s character Daniel Lugo. Doyle’s nervous energy in this sequence, and his propensity for deep, vulnerable emotion, undercuts the ultra-masculine confidence of his initial presentation.

The other members of the Sun Gym Gang are also shown to be far more neurotic than the typical Bay hero. Mackie’s Adrian Doorbal, who habitually uses steroids, is quickly rendered impotent. His machismo literally robs him (in a way) of his manhood. Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo – who is the gang’s most vicious sociopath – occasionally displays misogynistic, violent and greedy tendencies. The film’s satirical lens lampoons these characters’ neurotic mindsets, yet it doesn’t seek to demonize them. In fact, it ensures their likability. Mackie’s character strikes up a weirdly endearing relationship with a full-figured doctor (Rebel Wilson). The Rock’s Paul Doyle, despite his obvious gift for “knocking people the FUCK out!” is also endearing. He displays a genuine earnestness to be a good person (while clearly having no idea how to do so).

Even Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo, who is the most rotten member of the gang, has his unpleasant qualities off-set by the gang’s central victim: Tony Shalhoub’s Victor Kershaw – who comes across as an asshole incarnate. This is perhaps the most critical aspect of Pain and Gain, as it removes any sort of moral qualms one might have with the bodybuilders and their various criminal actions. Egotistical, entitled and devoid of empathy, Kershaw’s repulsive nature is taken to such a grotesque level that when he is finally kidnapped by the bodybuilder gang one feels very little discernible empathy. This contrast between the two men is so potent that when Wahlberg bellows at Kershaw, “I don’t just want everything you have. I want you not to have it,” it rings with the power of a thunder-clap. We, the audience, also don’t want Kershaw to hang on to his wealth and social privilege.

The way that Pain and Gain lampoons these characters is highly calculated.  It paints them as essentially dumb but loveable, and does not admonish their clearly egocentric and avaricious tendencies (by favorably comparing them to the repellent nature of their victims). Bay does find a flaw with these men however, and that is how ill-equipped they are to deal sustainably with the experience of a dream being fulfilled.

This failing by the bodybuilders comes into greater focus through the film’s introduction of Ed DuBois (Ed Harris), who serves as its informal protagonist. In Harris’s retired private investigator we see a figure who is capable of ensuring the longevity of his American Dream through the process of temporary deprivation. DuBois is introduced to the audience mindlessly hitting golf balls into the ocean, lamenting the banal nature of his retirement. By all appearances the DuBois character is living the dream, sharing a gorgeous, ocean-front property with a wife who clearly loves him. However he is still unhappy, restless, incapable of truly enjoying what he has. Once he is contacted by Shalhoub’s Kershaw, DuBois quickly decides to return to his old profession after only a moment or two of hesitation.

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His motivations for doing so are clear to everyone except himself. At one point Kershaw flat-out asks him about his reasons for getting involved, and in response DuBois mutters something about what the bodybuilders did being “Un-American.” This answer is immediately rebuffed by Kershaw as being inane, a valid dismissal. Ed DuBois reenters the fray of private investigating because it reintroduces an element of adversity to his life, upsetting the paradigm of a quiet retiree. He doesn’t know what to do with himself without this.

The positive benefits of this return to his profession are proven in one of the film’s final scenes. After the bodybuilders are brought to justice DuBois and his wife sit and reflect while staring out at the ocean. In this moment DuBois remarks that the bodybuilders crimes encapsulate a “waste of life.” This is followed by his wife stating that, “Some people don’t know a good thing when it’s staring them in the face,” before turning and looking directly into her husband’s eyes.

This scene is not exactly what one would call subtle, as the next shot features DuBois throwing his arm around his wife and remarking how “it really is the simple things in life” that matter. However, Bay’s bombastic suggestion is still valid, showing that DuBois has gotten back into a state of mind where he can appreciate his circumstances again, because of the temporary disruption, and the return to challenging state of adversity. How long this new-found contentment will last however is anyone’s guess.

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Pain and Gain’s third act sets up how the bodybuilders, faced with the fleeting nature of their own pleasure, adopt a response opposite from the one employed by Ed DuBois. Both The Rock’s Paul Doyle and Anthony Mackie’s Adrian Doorbal burn themselves out on their pleasures, and appear completely oblivious to how unsustainable their hedonism truly is. This is suggested through shots of Doyle inhaling his entire cut of the gang’s financial haul (symbolizing his massive coke addiction), and through Doorbal’s act of buying a lavish home, and then not having enough funds to pay for his penile therapies.

Wahlberg’s Lugo is shown to also be insatiable and attempting to enhance not temporarily disrupt his pleasures. Once the thrill of stealing Kershaw’s wealth and possessions dissipates for Lugo he attempts to accrue social capital by moving into the opulent community that Kershaw once lived. This insatiable nature proves to be his undoing. It causes him to temporarily lose sight of Kershaw, who is plotting vengeance through the hiring of Ed DuBois. In the end he also loses everything by attempting to continue his upward trajectory by pulling another criminal job.

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Or does he? At the end of the film, after he has been incarcerated, Bay appears to suggest that Lugo has indeed gained something: a partial acknowledgment of his unsustainable approach towards dreams. As he walks through the prison courtyard Lugo states that his dream became not about being equal to, but about being better than, and that this mentality is a “recipe for injury.”

This suggests that Lugo may at last be aware that because of humankind’s innate insatiability, achieving an American Dream often just leads to the pursuit of greater, more grandiose dreams. This is something that the film views as unsustainable, which is knowledge that the bodybuilders largely lacked, and that Ed DuBois’s actions were able to tap into. The temporary, disruptive deprivation he introduces to the serenity of his life is the more effective, and more sustainable path to happiness, or at least being able to more fully and consistently recognize happiness.

Bay clearly is sympathetic to Lugo in this final scene, with another canted angle appearing, but this time not used for ironic or subversive purposes (like the way it was used to introduce The Rock). What this dramatic framing suggests is that Bay views Lugo as perhaps more enlightened, pragmatic, but no less full of the indomitable spirit for self-improvement. To Bay this is a mindset that makes Lugo, in the end, heroic (a tone which is probably much to the chagrin of the real people involved). He’s presented as a man heroically willing to work for a noble concept that he believes in, a concept that is intensely problematic. And why is it so problematic? Well, to Bay it’s simple: The American Dream doesn’t exist.

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