The director is Michael Bay. The movie is “Pain & Gain.”
Over the past couple of weeks, the strongest line of critique to emerge against Trump is that he’s a fraud, that his business success is a mirage and a front, that his claims to deal-making prowess would prove ephemeral and that he doesn’t believe anything that he says. But the backlash to those attacks has also been ferocious, as Trump voters fiercely reject the counsel of former party leaders such as Mitt Romney and John McCain.
If this is mystifying to some observers, the obvious answer is that his supporters don’t care if Trump is a fake; they find him appealing and inspiring anyway. “Pain & Gain” is a movie about that kind of thinking, about the disgust it inspires in response and about the unbridgeable gap between two very different visions of America.
“Pain & Gain” is set in Miami in 1994 and 1995, and as Ed Harris says in a voice-over toward the beginning of the film, “Unfortunately, this is a true story.” It follows Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a personal trainer who wants to make more of his life, as he decides to extort one of his clients, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a plan that escalates into torture and murder. Eventually, a retired private investigator named Ed DuBois (Harris) gets curious enough to take Victor’s case. DuBois’s pursuit of Lugo makes for an entertaining detective story, but it’s also a contest between two radically different understandings of the American idea.
Lugo is driven by a kind of bewildered grievance, a confusion that all the work he’s put into bodybuilding hasn’t earned him the respect, the material goods and romantic success he believes should be his under the terms of the American social contract:
“If you’re willing to do the work, you can have anything. That’s what makes the U.S. of A. great. When it started, America was just a handful of scrawny colonies. Now, it’s the most buffed, pumped-up country on the planet. That’s pretty rad,” Lugo insists in the monologue that kicks off “Pain & Gain.” “Most people say they want to look better. Not everyone’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it. All of my heroes are self-made: Rocky, Scarface, all the guys from ‘The Godfather.’ They all started out with nothing and built their way to perfection. The way to prove yourself is to better yourself. That’s the American Dream. I have no sympathy for people who squander their gifts. It’s sickening. It’s worse than sickening. It’s unpatriotic.”
Throw in some references to “losers” and “low-energy” people and Trump could use this as a stump speech.
But Daniel isn’t coming to these ideas entirely on his own. If there’s a Trump-like figure in the movie, it’s Jonny Wu (Ken Jeong), a motivational speaker who tours under the slogan “Get Off Your Lazy American [A–],” brags about having dumped his wife for a roster of seven girlfriends and peddles an insipid plan for self-improvement:
Wu is obviously a manipulative hack — if a effective one — but “Pain & Gain” makes clear why he’s appealing to people like Lugo. Wu is excellent at furnishing his listeners with catchy mantras that seem to set a confusing world in order a la Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” and in his three-piece suits and parade of honeys, he embodies a very particular vision of high class. If he expressed his fondness for pink marble and wasn’t Asian, Wu might be close to an explicit riff on Trump himself, his seminars the fictional equivalent of the legally embattled Trump University.
And when Wu singles Lugo out for special attention at a seminar, he makes Lugo feel recognized and appreciated after years of believing that he’s been chronically overlooked and underrated. Never mind that Wu’s demand that Lugo declare himself “a do-er or a don’t-er” is standard audience participation schtick, or that when Wu gives Lugo a private training session it’s clear that he can’t wait to bail on the overeager man standing in front of him. Lugo intuits a personal connection, just as Trump voters feel exhilarated and validated by their candidate’s crass rejection of establishment politicians and establishment values.
And in what he believes to be in keeping with Wu’s teaching, Lugo pulls together his friends Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (a fantastic Dwayne Johnson) to kidnap Kershaw, and later to try to pull the same stunt on Frank Griga (Michael Rispoli), a wealthy operator of phone sex lines.
The bloody path Lugo, Adrian and Paul travel down brings them into conflict with two men who have a radically different sense of how to live out American values.
Lugo chooses Kershaw as a target because he despises the man as a braggart who doesn’t work hard in the gym and, frankly, because Lugo can’t understand why Kershaw is wealthy while he is not. But as Kershaw explains, he’s equally determined: He just invests his energy in other ways.
“My grandfather fled Germany in 1943. I was born in Bogota, grew up in New York City. Put myself through college working six nights a week at Pizza Hut,” Kershaw tells us in a voice-over during his captivity. “Busted my [a–], but ended up comptroller of a billion-dollar pipeline in the rectum of the Third World. I put up with [s—] they don’t have names for in civilization.”
And just as Lugo hates Kershaw, Kershaw is disgusted by Lugo. After Lugo has locked up Kershaw in his own warehouse, Kershaw tells him bitterly that Lugo’s failures are his own fault, that he’s broke because he never went to college and because he’s focused on building his body rather than developing plans for a viable business.
Lugo goes ballistic, as he does again later in the movie when Griga says that he doesn’t think Lugo is “a hard worker” and he doesn’t trust Lugo to run a business. Both men hit on Lugo’s deepest fear, the one that makes him most vulnerable and volatile: the idea that his dissatisfaction might be his own fault, rather than someone else’s. In Griga’s case, exposing the delusion and denial that define Lugo’s life will prove fatal.
The presidential election has, thus far, been blessedly spared the sort of violence that shows up in “Pain & Gain.” But the race is defined by an eerily similar dynamic. Calling Trump voters racist, or dumb, or crass, did not, unsurprisingly, persuade hordes of them to vote for John Kasich, or Jeb Bush, or even Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio instead. Instead, every attempt to delegitimize Trump has exposed and broadened the gaps between Americans with radically different, and perhaps irreconcilable, views of their country. And Trump’s rallies have often been punctuated by ugly incidents in which attendees get rough with protesters — sometimes at Trump’s behest — turning on anyone who interrupts Trump’s communion with his audiences.
That gap is evident at the end of “Pain & Gain,” too. The movie closes with Kershaw regaining at least some of his wealth, and DuBois sitting on the dock outside of his beautiful, modernist house, staring at the water with his wife and enjoying the good fortune he earned through honest work. Lugo, by contrast, is on death row.
But just because he’s locked up doesn’t mean he’s given up his dreams about what he deserves, or his idea of what it means to be American. And just as Trump is a unique figure, he’s exposed a deep vein of discontent that both Republicans and Democrats will have to reckon with in years to come.
“All I ever wanted out of life was what everyone else had. Not more. Just not the less I was used to. Well, I took a real swing for it, you know?” Lugo muses in the prison yard. “And for a while, it was like I always thought it would be. I was one of you. And it felt good. People finally saw me like I saw myself and you can’t ask for more than that. Maybe I did, though. Maybe it got so I didn’t want to be ‘equal to’ anymore. I wanted to be ‘better than.’ And that’s a recipe for injury. That doesn’t mean you give up, though. You rest, you heal and you get back on that bench. Life is going to give me another set. And I am going to rock it.”