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There's some big, dumb fun to be had in comedy caper, but the laughs come at a queasy cost

Contemporary filmmaker Michael Bay has always seemed to target the attention-deficit disorder demographic with noisy, fast-paced shlock featuring lots of shiny surfaces: sleek cars and sleek half-naked women.

In a departure from his ridiculously successful Transformers movies, Bay takes on a true crime story with Pain & Gain, and for a brief while, it appears his frenetic, glossy style will dovetail with the content.

Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo in Pain and Gain, directed by Michael Bay from Paramount Pictures.

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Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo in Pain and Gain, directed by Michael Bay from Paramount Pictures.

For starters, it's about a bunch of idiots. Sleek, shiny, bodybuilding idiots.

Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a fitness trainer at the Sun Gym in Miami, unhappy with the prospect of "another 40 years of wearing sweatpants to work."

Torqued by a sleazy motivational speaker (Ken Jeong) into a put-yourself-first philosophy of being a doer (as opposed to a don't-er), Lugo concocts a get-rich-quick scheme. He targets a gym client, the obnoxious self-made millionaire Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and contrives to simply steal Kershaw's wealth through sheer brute force.

For that, he needs a couple of accomplices and chooses a couple of other bodybuilders: a dim, born-again ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and the nastier but equally stupid Adrian Dorball (Anthony Mackie). After a couple of abortive kidnap attempts, they finally seize Kershaw, take him to a warehouse, and torture him until he signs over all his wealth and worldly goods.

"I've watched a lot of movies," Lugo asserts. "I know what I'm doing."

Well, no, not really. Lugo's list of personal role models are all fictitious -- "Rocky, Scarface, the guys from the Godfather" -- and he doesn't operate well in the real world. But he is lucky. Kershaw survives the kidnapping, but the police don't believe his outrageous tale of how his fortune was stolen from him. (Kershaw is half-Colombian and Florida cops simply don't trust Colombians.)

Kershaw finally succeeds in getting a private investigator on the case. Ex-cop Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) is the only smart, capable person in this whole movie. And that could be bad news for the "Sun Gym Gang," especially as they prepare to strike again against a porn magnate (Michael Rispoli).

Scripted by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Pain & Gain is one of the rare Michael Bay movies that aspires to actually be about something. The movie offers a vague commentary about how the American Dream, coupled with a culture of instant gratification, is a recipe for disaster. (For a change, an American flag in a Michael Bay movie is not meant to invoke knee-jerk patriotic fervour.)

The performances here are actually pretty funny. In particular, Wahlberg adds a toxic layer to his naive, all-American persona. And Johnson is uncharacteristically hilarious as a would-be Christian who takes a steep fall into violence and druggie excess.

The problem is the movie shouldn't be all that funny. It was clearly modelled after the Coen brothers' kidnapping-gone-wrong opus Fargo, which the Coens presented as a true story but was, in fact, pure fiction.

This story features a real-life double murder, played for laughs. The effect is as alienating as a Transformers movie.

Even when his movies don't feature robots, Michael Bay movies lack recognizable humanity.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2013 D1

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Updated on Friday, April 26, 2013 at 6:27 AM CDT: adds fact box, replaces photo, changes headline

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