So far this year, I've seen films directed by Terrence Malick, Danny Boyle, Harmony Korine, and Derek Cianfrance this year, but the best movie I've seen so far was directed by Michael Bay. I know, I can't fucking believe it either, but Pain & Gain was better than all of those films. Perhaps this says something about me, as Pain & Gain revels in the idiocy of these wannabe criminals like a twisted Elmore Leonard novel in which the bad guys are the center of the tale and you want them to succeed, but it was a dark, crime-driven action comedy, and while Bay's skills are typically a bad fit once he is thrust into the science fiction genre (or whatever the fuck you call those Transformers abominations), the Bad Boys flicks were a rollicking good time.
Where Pain & Gain is most successful is in its optimization of its stars' strengths. Pain & Gain is an optimal vehicle for both Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson.
In Daniel Lugo, Mark Wahlberg has role that allows for his gifts to shine. If there is one thing that Wahlberg does like nobody else, it is playing a slightly dimmer character who thinks he's more intelligent than he actually is. His treatise on the patriotism of fitness and the American Dream is brilliant on its own, but with Wahlberg delivering the speech via voice-over, it is fucking sublime. As he extols the virtues of maintaining physical fitness, he's delivering a laugh every five seconds. His steadfast belief in self-improvement being the key to realizing the American Dream is funny, but the amorality in his approach and the inherent contradiction in his willing to screw someone else over to better himself is priceless.
Perhaps most importantly, Dwayne Johnson gets to stretch out as Paul Doyle. In nearly every film Dwayne Johnson has been cast in, he is underutilized. Pain & Gain is far and away his best performance. His performance is rich with a comic naïveté colored by his religious belief. He is easily influenced by others who exploit his malleability. He is also enormous, and unlike in most other films, Johnson's physicality is used to the benefit of the film.
That's not to say the rest of the film is without strong performances, too. Anthony Mackie and Rebel Wilson are both good, as is Ed Harris. Tony Shalhoub gets his best chance to shine since The Man Who Wasn't There.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without a biting screenplay, which the team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deliver with a surprisingly deft hold on the darkness given that their previous efforts were the Chronicles of Narnia series, You Kill Me (which could theoretically have worked in that realm, but I've never heard of the film), The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, and Captain America. Pain & Gain is consistently hilarious and deliriously twisted, with much of that owing to the screenplay.
This undersells what Michael Bay does. His skillset isn't the most flexible. It only works in a very specific setting. Pain & Gain is that setting. While his direction may in fact be the byproduct of years of untreated ADHD, this film feels like Miami at its trashiest, which seems to have been the intent. I really never thought I'd say this, but I loved a Michael Bay film. Bravo, sir. Bravo.