I think it’s fair to say that Michael Bay holds a very controversial place among his peers in Hollywood. The man has a reputation for making totally brainless action films that are big on explosions and CGI but short on logic or plot. He’s especially well-known for casting drop-dead gorgeous actors who barely deserve to be called as such.

Heaven knows that this reputation is hardly undeserved. In fact, Bay himself seems to embrace it. Still, there’s something about Bay that elevates him above Paul W.S. Anderson, Brett Ratner, and other such hacks. The difference is that for all of Bay’s faults, he’s actually a very talented filmmaker. No, seriously.

Precious few in the business know how to set up, shoot, or edit an action scene like Michael Bay can. He’s better at presenting vehicular action than just about anyone. The support he gets from the U.S. military is unparalleled. The explosions and CGI in his movies deserve all the praise they get. But here’s the real kicker: Bay is known for delivering his movies on time and under budget. Granted, his films are all made on enormous budgets anyway, but the consistent ability to cut a few million dollars and keep them off is no small thing in Hollywood.

In my estimation, the greatest frustration with Michael Bay is that he’s never really used his powers for good. Take Christopher Nolan, for instance: After he made The Dark Knight — which, remember, was the second-highest grossing film of all time until Avatar came out later that year — Nolan went and made Inception. Nolan made a totally original and mind-blowing movie that no other filmmaker could possibly have crafted. More to the point, if anyone else had shopped this screenplay around Hollywood, studio execs would have treated it like goddamn nuclear waste. Yet Nolan used his newfound “fuck you” clout to get that movie made and to get it made the way he wanted.

Michael Bay, by comparison, doesn’t seem to have an Inception in him. The man is at a point where he could make any film he damn well pleases, bringing something new and inspiring to the world, yet he consistently chooses not to. Despite his astronomical clout in Hollywood and his superb skills behind a camera, Bay continues to churn out the same old “lowest common denominator” crap. I really do think that Bay could potentially be on the level of Zack Snyder or J.J. Abrams, if only he’d inject an iota of creativity or intelligence into his films. But no, Bay continues to make one mindless blockbuster after another. He can certainly make them better than most, but still.

For whatever reason, it seemed like Bay was either unwilling or unable to step outside his comfort zone. It’s like he had everything it takes to be a true auteur except any kind of an artistic statement to make. Until now.

Ever since its development was first announced, Pain & Gain had been built up as the film to prove Bay’s detractors wrong. Not only was the film made on a reported budget of $26 million (about nine or ten times less than what Bay usually works with), but it was said to be more intellectual than his other fare. Bay himself compared the film to Fargo and Pulp Fiction while promoting it.

Clearly, Michael Bay wanted to prove himself capable of comedy that’s more subtle and edgy than what he’s used to. He wanted to try his hand at making some kind of an artistic statement. He fails, of course, but the effort pays dividends nonetheless.

As the film repeatedly reminds us, the plot is based on a true story. Mark Wahlberg stars as Danny Lugo, a bodybuilder who believes in the American Dream. He idolizes self-made men who started from nothing and worked hard to gain everything. Of course, Danny fails to notice that of the idols he lists off — Rocky, Scarface, Michael Corleone, etc. — none of them ever really existed. His other big idol is Johnny Wu, a “get rich quick” guru played by Ken Jeong, who’s every bit as fake in his own way.

The point being that Danny is holding himself up to an ideal that’s blatantly fake, and he’s too stupid to see it. Hollywood sold him a fantasy, and he bought into it with all of his heart and soul. In his delusional mind, Danny is the hero in an action movie. He’s the underdog who will always, always come out on top no matter what the odds are against him. I’ll remind you that this pitiful depiction comes to us from the guy who made Bad BoysArmageddon, and the Transformers movies.

Moreover, Danny is one of those guys with waaaaay more ego than brains. He sees himself as a god, and he wants everyone else to see him in that way as well. That’s a huge part of why he’s a bodybuilder in the first place — he wants his physique to match his pride. When Tyler Durden said “self-improvement is masturbation,” this is the kind of guy he was talking about.

Worst of all, Danny has a very binary way of thinking. Danny reasons that if he isn’t moving forward, then he’s moving backward. Therefore, any action at all would be better than inaction. Quitting, of course, is never an option. As such, Danny is a man with a huge ego, negligible intelligence, unfailing confidence, and a constant drive to keep doing something. Clearly, this combination will not yield anything good.

In the opposing corner of the ring is Victor Kershaw, played as a complete and unrepentant dickhole by Tony Shalhoub. Victor is a multi-millionaire, yet he does nothing but lounge around and treat everyone else like crap. Not only has Victor achieved his wealth through no apparent effort, but he takes it for granted and his ego is somehow massive enough to dwarf that of Danny. Naturally, the two don’t get along.

(Side note: Kershaw is actually a fake name, used “to protect the survivor.” His name was actually Marc Schiller. More on him later.)

Danny firmly believes in the notion that hard work and success go hand in hand. He preaches that there are no shortcuts to victory. And so, to get what he perceives as his just reward for so many years of body building, and to punish Victor for obtaining his fortunes unjustly, Danny plots to steal his wealth.

To recap: If anyone else steals to get rich quick, it’s morally reprehensible. But if Danny steals to get rich quick, then it’s hard work rewarded by monetary gain.

Helping Danny with this plan are two equally muscle-bound associates. One of them is Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), who seems to treat Danny as a role model. He shares Danny’s tireless pursuit of self-improvement, though he takes it to far more absurd lengths. His steroid use is a recurring plotline, and there’s one rather disturbing scene in which he extols the virtues of drinking breast milk (it’s rich in natural proteins and human growth hormone, you see).

Then there’s Dwayne Johnson, the true hidden weapon of this film. He plays Paul Doyle, a born-again Christian who constantly struggles — and eventually fails — to curb his own violent ways and drug habits. Through The Rock’s overwhelming charisma, this character somehow manages to be funny and sympathetic at the same time. Johnson has an uncanny ability for being humorous and threatening at the same time (can’t imagine where he developed that skill), which does the character and the film all kinds of favors. It helps that unlike his colleagues — who are ego and greed all the way down — Paul honestly wants to be better. He can’t, but at least he’s putting in an effort.

Really, Paul’s entire character is summed up in The Rock’s performance when he says “I was blessed with certain gifts, and one of them is knocking people the fuck out!” Keep in mind, he says that by way of an apology. And it had me laughing out loud in the theater.

As for the female characters, it’s worth pointing out that the most prominent woman in the cast is Rebel Wilson. Yes, it seems that Michael Bay cast his female lead for her comedic talents and not for how she would look on a magazine cover. It’s a nice change of pace, and one that greatly benefits the movie as a whole.

Wilson aside, the female cast is almost entirely populated by tanned beauties whose tits are clearly and outrageously fake. In point of fact, almost all of the women in this film are strippers. The best example is Sorina (real name Sabina Petrescu, played by Bar Poly), a former beauty queen who illegally came to America so she could suck her way to the top. She’s dumb as a brick, her beauty is transparently fake, having sex is the only thing she’s good at, and most of the other female cast members are just more of the same. I’m tempted to think that Bay was parodying himself in an implicit sort of way, though maybe that’s just the Miami setting.

On the subject of supporting characters, I suppose I should mention Rob Corddry. He plays John Mese, Danny’s boss at the local Sun Gym. The guy’s way too ambitious for his own good and strapped for cash as well, so of course he serves as a pawn in Danny’s little schemes. I realize that this isn’t saying much, and maybe it’s because the character didn’t stick around to wear out his welcome, but this is easily the best performance I’ve seen from Corddry. The guy shows some subtle dramatic chops here, though his background in comedy helped to sell the character’s sleaziness.

Anyway, it bears mentioning that this whole cast is full of degenerates and criminals. Danny and his fellow idiots try to extort the douchebag Victor out of his money, and we get to sit back and laugh as both sides get what’s coming to them. Yet for some reason, the film only ends with Danny and his colleagues getting arrested. The filmmakers completely neglect to mention what happened later, when Schiller got arrested for a $14 million Medicare scam. Schiller — as Kershaw — was routinely portrayed in such an unflattering fashion, and subjected to all manner of comeuppance, yet the film passed on delivering that last coup de grace. I have no idea why.

However, it bears mentioning that the film does have one likeable member in its cast. Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) is the private investigator hired by Kershaw to gather evidence against the Sun Gym gang. He’s also the film’s moral arbiter. The guy actively works against Danny and his friends not only because they’re thieves, but also because they’re a bunch of “stupid fucks.” But at the same time, he isn’t afraid to call Kershaw out on his crap, either. Ed isn’t interested in helping some asshole get his property back, he just wants to stop some criminals before they commit another crime. Last but not least, DuBois gets that all-important moment with his wife when they look out over the ocean and express thanks for what they have. I’d like to think of that one moment as the film’s central thesis.

On a technical level, the film is more or less what you’d expect from Michael Bay. The camerawork and the editing are amazing, the action looks great (though the shaky-cam detracts from a a few moments), and so on. That said, Bay’s detractors might be interested to learn that there were no outrageous CGI centerpieces, and there was only one noteworthy explosion. Make of that what you will.

Alas, Michael Bay once again tapped Steve Jablonsky to write the score. Sorry, but this guy’s music does nothing for me. The ’90s-era period soundtrack contributed more to the proceedings than Jablonsky’s score ever did. The guy’s overrated, get him out of here.

That said, Jablonsky’s music was too bland for me to consider it a mark against the movie. No, I was much more annoyed by the constant, never-ending voiceovers. Pretty much every single character in this film gets at least one chance to explain their every thought in voiceover. They talk about their backstories, they talk about their fears, they talk about what they’ve learned so far. It’s pointless, it’s distracting, it’s lazy, and it’s excessive.

Even worse, the film makes frequent use of onscreen graphics. Every so often, the film will come to a full stop so it can display some “helpful” text. Sometimes the text will explain a character’s thoughts (“Perfect execution”). Sometimes the text will be a comment from the filmmakers (“This is still a true story”). Sometimes, the text will be read by some offscreen voice (a list of cocaine’s side effects). The execution is so inconsistent that it begs the question of what function they’re supposed to serve. Additionally, the characters are already giving us detailed voice-over explanations of everything that’s going on, so why bother?

Still, none of these were dealbreakers. I couldn’t bring myself to hate the film in spite of these annoyances, but I didn’t leave the theater singing its praises, either. Something about this film inspired a great apathy in me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. After thinking about it for a full day, the best I’ve got is this.

The best thing that this film has going for it is the trio of Wahlberg, Mackie, and Johnson. It’s the classic “Three Stooges” setup of three morons arguing among themselves about what to do and how to do it. Yes, Danny is technically the leader of the pack, but all of his bravado still isn’t enough to get him a clue. It’s absolutely hilarious to watch these knuckleheads get into stupid arguments while trying to pass themselves off as professional thieves. The chemistry between these three actors is absolutely airtight, and it’s potent enough to power the entire film. And therein lies the problem.

It’s obvious that Michael Bay was trying to make some grand statement about the American Dream. Unfortunately, he never really gets around to making that statement in a coherent or thought-provoking way, because he’d rather show our principal cast members acting like a trio of grisly clowns. No one ever really stops to think about the reasons or the ethics of what’s going on because of all the crazy shit that keeps happening on a constant basis. Then again, Ed DuBois is the only character in this whole damn movie who’s fit to make any kind of intelligent commentary, and his screen time is depressingly slim.

What’s more, the film takes great pains at reminding us that this is a real story. If you actually clicked on that link I provided earlier (here it is again, for your convenience), you’d know that this movie took a great deal of liberties with the story, many of which are common and cliched practice with Hollywood “nonfiction” films. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in most movies; dramatizing a true story is essentially a process of adaptation, sharing many of the same obstacles that come in bringing a book or a video game to the screen.

In this case, however, it sets the movie back. The film’s sincerity is constantly undercut by all of the transparent ways in which it was heightened to suit the filmmakers’ needs. Additionally, the movie takes especially great pains to insist on its authenticity while something utterly baffling is going on. This suggests that the filmmakers were more interested in preserving the subjects’ baffling acts of criminal idiocy, rather than what they actually did and what they actually learned from it. If this was truly meant to be a more intellectual and thought-provoking piece, you’d think it would be the other way around.

For a point of comparison, consider Bernie from way back in 2011. Again, that movie took some very clear liberties with the true life events that inspired it. However, that movie took those creative liberties with the intention of getting into Bernie Tiede’s head. It speculated on Bernie’s character and what drove him to murder so that we might explore the issue of what drives good men to do evil things. And it was still a darkly funny movie.

For another point of comparison, look at Spring Breakers from just a few months ago. There was another pitch-black satire of the American Dream and superficial happiness by way of property. However, that film had the balls to go into some really dark places and make some profound statements by way of potent and novel imagery. That film had multiple scenes of young and nubile idiots happily sucking off a pistol. This film has a pair of breast implants used as evidence in a murder trial. I rest my case.

Basically put, Pain & Gain doesn’t work very well as any kind of artistic statement about the American Dream. No matter how hard Michael Bay tries to broaden his sensibilities, he’s still a goofball director who would rather show big action scenes and moments of outrageous comedy than make any kind of valid intellectual point. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he did clearly put in the effort to challenge himself, and I respect that.

It also bears repeating that this film is not a total waste by any stretch of the imagination. The main trio of Wahlberg, Mackie, and Johnson all acquit themselves wonderfully, and Shalhoub’s character is so much fun to hate. There are some great laugh-out-loud moments to be found in here, especially for those with a great deal of tolerance for jokes made in bad taste.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that this film is much more ballsy than your usual multiplex fare, but it isn’t quite provocative enough for the arthouses, either. Still, Bay missed his mark by such a narrow margin that I hope he takes another shot sooner than later.

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