The most important thing you need to know about the action comedy “Pain and Gain” is not that it’s a Mark Wahlberg movie or a Dwayne Johnson movie, or even that it’s inspired by real events. All of those statements are accurate, more or less. The double-beefcake sandwich of Wahlberg and Johnson does, in fact, anchor the film, though it tends to provide more dead weight than muscle. And its factual basis — a series of grisly crimes committed by a group of Miami bodybuilders in 1994 and 1995 — would hardly seem the stuff of comedy, even a dark one.
No, the most important thing you need to know about this sour attempt to turn tragedy into farce is that it’s a Michael Bay project. The man behind such loud and unsubtle popular entertainments as “The Rock,” “Pearl Harbor” and the “Transformers” franchise brings his trademark truncheon approach to directing something that demands finesse, not blunt force: the attempt to find humor in the horrible. And the source material is pretty darn horrible.
Based on a series of articles by Pete Collins in the Miami New Times, “Pain and Gain” is the story of Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) and a group of accomplices who came to be known as the Sun Gym Gang. They perpetrated, in roughly this order, such crimes as kidnapping, torture, extortion, attempted murder, actual murder and, finally, dismemberment, in their pursuit of what their film counterparts describe as the “American dream.” Their victims are a Miami deli owner (Tony Shalhoub) and a phone-sex entrepreneur and his girlfriend (Michael Rispoli and Keili Lefkovitz).
Lugo, it should be noted, is now on death row, along with his partner-in-crime Adrian Doorbal, played in the film by Anthony Mackie. Johnson, whose actions in the film are slightly less heinous than those of his pals, plays a fictional member of the Sun Gym crew, a coked-out, fundamentalist Christian ex-con named Paul Doyle.
The movie’s surprisingly sluggish first half deals with Lugo, Doorbal and Doyle’s attempt, over a month, to extort Victor Kershaw — played by Shalhoub in a fictionalized version of the real-life victim — through somewhat inept torture methods. Then, after Kershaw has signed over all his bank accounts and property, the gang tries, unsuccessfully, to kill him. So far, so hilarious, right? At least no one has been chopped into pieces with a chain saw . . . yet.
The whole thing is played for laughs that almost never come. To be sure, the film has its moments, but they’re few and far between. Most arrive courtesy of Rebel Wilson, who plays Doorbal’s randy wife, a nurse who meets her husband at a clinic specializing in the treatment of steroid-induced impotence. I know: nice.
Some relatives of Lugo and Doorbal’s real-life victims have spoken out in anger about what they see as the film’s attempt to create sympathy for a gang of criminals. The sister of the phone-sex entrepreneur, for instance, told the Miami Herald, “I don’t want the American public to be sympathetic to the killers.”
To which I can only say: Don’t worry.
Almost no one in “Pain and Gain” is even remotely sympathetic, with the possible exception of the private detective (Ed Harris) whose investigation helped bring Lugo and his cronies to justice. The absence of a likable hero makes it really hard to laugh.
Not that the rape and homophobia jokes would even give you a chance. The movie is also peppered with sight gags involving explosive diarrhea, excessive body hair, giant sex toys, fake breasts and miscellaneous amputation. At least the film’s title is half right.
Can criminal misbehavior generate humor? Absolutely. Just look at “The Hangover.” But Bay, who is aided and abetted by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, doesn’t seem to know where to begin looking for it. Even “The Hangover’s” Ken Jeong — playing a motivational speaker whose get-rich-quick schemes provide the impetus for Lugo’s felonious activities — provides only momentary relief from the movie’s overwhelmingly disagreeable tone.
“Pain and Gain” makes much of the fact that it’s true, reminding us of its veracity, with on-screen titles, whenever the story begins to strain credulity. Case in point: The moment when the chain saw that Lugo and Doorbal are using to cut up victims becomes jammed with human hair.
Guess what? Collins’s meticulously reported newspaper articles also were true, and they weren’t funny either.
R. At area theaters. Contains obscenity, violence, torture, gore, drug use, nudity, sex and crude humor. 120 minutes.
Correction: An earlier version of this review stated the sister of the phone-sex entrepreneur spoke to the Associated Press. She actually spoke to the Miami Herald.