Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg, and Anthony Mackie in Pain & GainPAIN & GAIN

In Pain & Gain, the witty, savvy, almost perfectly pitched new release by Michael Bay, Mark Wahlberg plays a dimwitted personal trainer who decides he'd rather steal than pursue the American dream, and - .

Yes, I just used "witty," "savvy," and "almost perfectly pitched" to describe a Michael Bay movie. Trust me, you're not as shocked as I am.

And truth be told, the adroit, invigorating direction by the typically overbearing helmer of Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and the Transformers franchise is just one of numerous happy shocks on hand in this testosterone-fueled dark comedy - a tongue-in-cheek, and utterly enjoyable, true-crime thriller about really stupid individuals doing really stupid things. The film concerns a trio of thick-bodied, thick-headed gym rats (played by Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie) whose get-rich-quick scheme involves the kidnapping and torture of a sleazeball Florida millionaire (Tony Shalhoub). But while their unwise plan inevitably goes awry due to arrogance, cocaine, and a quartet of severed hands on a backyard grill, Pain & Gain itself stays remarkably consistent throughout its 130-minute running length. Bay's movie may be brash and brutal and vulgar, but it's so relentlessly cheerful in its debauchery - even when Shalhoub's head is being crushed by the back tire of a truck - that it's also nearly impossible to resist.

Part of the film's playfulness stems from its structure, which, as designed by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, gives us no fewer than six voice-over narrators explaining their sides of the story; just when you're positive that Wahlberg's Daniel Lugo is the dimmest bulb around, his reminiscences will be interrupted by those of another character with explanations and "insights" even more hilariously harebrained. (Ed Harris' stalwart private investigator is our only confidante who seems to possess a lick of sense.) But with cinematographer Ben Seresin offering up gorgeously overripe, sun-drenched imagery, it's Bay who's responsible for most of Pain & Gain's gleeful nihilism. For once, the man's over-scaled action sequences and proclivity for slow motion are used for ironic comedy - our antihero dipsticks might be envisioning themselves as stars in a Michael Bay movie - and even his more expected presentational effects are laced with parody. Halfway through the film, we're treated to the clichéd shot of three muscle-bound bad-asses slowly sauntering away from a fiery explosion. In a lovely touch here, when the detonation happens, Dwayne Johnson's lummox visibly winces.

There are times, particularly when the camera is ogling Bar Paly's stereotypically dumb blond (and former Miss Bucharest) Sorina, when you can't tell if the movie is satirizing crude, misogynist behavior or merely wallowing in it, and other times when events go so far over the top that the credibility strain almost pulls you out of the picture. (Not for nothing does the title card "This is still a true story" pop up an hour and a half into the film.) Yet like a steroid-enhanced version of Oliver Stone's Savages, Pain & Gain proves to be a thrillingly scuzzy entertainment with definite smarts, and one that's generous enough to provide meaty comic turns for everyone from Johnson (funnier than he's ever been before) to Rob Corddry to the ever-invaluable Rebel Wilson. They and the rest of Bay's supporting cast are in expert form, though in terms of overall amusement, they still don't compare with Wahlberg and his newly, frighteningly buff frame, especially when the hysterically simpleminded Lugo is vocalizing his plans for a better life spent "traveling to places like Paris and France." It's the "and" that makes it art.


Christine Ebersole, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Ana Ayora, Patricia Rae, and Katherine Heigl in The Big WeddingTHE BIG WEDDING

Amanda Seyfried plays the bride-to-be in writer/director Justin Zackham's The Big Wedding, and the usually ebullient actress appears so uncharacteristically glum here that you tend to forget about her even during scenes in which she's prominently featured. That consequently makes Amanda Seyfried the absolute luckiest performer to be associated with this unpleasant and rather insulting comedy, a wheezing sex farce for AARP members that manages to trash nearly all the goodwill generated by its mostly esteemed and beloved cast. (I'd be tempted to get rid of the "mostly," but Katherine Heigl's in this thing.) Heaven knows that leads Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, and Susan Sarandon are doing what they can to make their slack and retrograde material play - De Niro, especially, comes through with winningly weird flourishes - and there's even a modicum of charm courtesy of Topher Grace, Christine Ebersole, Kyle Bornheimer, Ben Barnes, and even the usually exasperating Robin Williams. Yet the actors are nowhere near enough to redeem Zackham's moronic, sub-Birdcage plotting that finds ex-spouses De Niro and Keaton forced to pose as happily marrieds, or the grating stabs at adorable quirkiness (Heigl as a childless lawyer who faints in front of babies! Grace as a 29-year-old virgin!), or, worst of all, the incessant, oppressive air of terminal cutesiness. I hated Zackham's movie for making such asses of its stars, but I really hated it whenever its purportedly intelligent and eloquent characters, as they were frequently wont to do, made references to "boinking" or "porking" or "making whoopsie." It's The Big Wedding itself that proves to be the real whoopsie.

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