Wildly successful movie directors often bemoan their successes and say they long for a time when they will be able to just make smaller and more personal films. Then they don’t.
George Lucas said it for decades after Star Wars, and yet, despite the fact that he could have paid for smaller and more personal films with the loose change in his multi-zillionaire pockets, somehow he just never got around to it. Now that he has sold Star Wars and his whole business to Disney for a cool $4 billion, maybe Lucas will. I hope so—at least for the sake of camp, because who knows what inadvertent comedy might emerge from the mind of the writer-director responsible for the worst line of dialogue in motion picture history (“Hold me, Anakin, hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo”).
The latest example of the “I need to make my passion projects” trope is Michael Bay, the unimaginably successful director of the three Transformers movies. For the last of those he earned—are you sitting down?—$125 million. Bay is the kind of person who was able to say, without any sense of shame, that he was moved to make Pearl Harbor in 2001 after having a really cool dream in which he saw how to film a Japanese bomb blowing up the USS Arizona and killing 1,177 Americans. His dream became that movie’s “money shot,” and the moviegoing public found the feast of destruction Bay was serving up somewhat disquieting: Pearl Harbor was a box-office disappointment.
Bay’s new passion project is a $26 million movie called Pain & Gain, and it does not speak well of Bay that its repugnantly comic depiction of a group of idiot psychopaths who torture and kill people is so personal for him. This overheated, overdone, overstimulated, overdrawn, overlong piece of garbage is based on a completely crazy true story—so crazy that it needs no embellishment. And yet, Bay cannot resist jumping up and down, waving at us, making sure we know he’s there with the slow motion and the fast cars and the strip clubs and the flashbacks and flash-forwards. All of it revels in the psychopathy of its lead characters and excuses their evil on the grounds that they had been fooled into seeking a shortcut to wealth by the false promises of the “American dream.”
The story is this: In 1995, a Miami businessman named Marc Schiller was kidnapped by four men who knew each other from a muscle gym. For a month, they tortured him and got him to sign documents divesting him of his property and goods. Then they set him on fire and ran over him with a car, but failed to kill him. The hapless Miami police were skeptical of Schiller’s story; only a respected private eye named Ed DuBois realized Schiller was telling the truth. The gang moved on to kill others before it was finally rounded up.
The movie version tries to turn this grotesquerie into a comment on the “American dream.” The ringleader, Daniel Lugo, is played as a kind of unholy innocent by Mark Wahlberg; all he wants is success, and he fixes upon Schiller, here called Victor Kershaw. The depiction of Kershaw is the true outrage of Pain & Gain. Tony Shalhoub plays him as a greedy, grasping, vulgar New Yorker with a giant Jewish star dangling from his chest who has Shabbat dinner with his family. “You know who eats salad?” he says. “Poor people.”
That Bay is himself Jewish does not excuse the stark anti-Semitism of his portrait of Schiller/Kershaw. Quite the opposite.
Now, it is true that Schiller ended up going to prison for Medicare fraud, though the chief witness against him was one of his kidnappers. Even so, there is no question that he was tortured for 30 days, that Russian roulette was played at the side of his head, and that he had a car driven over his head. Whatever Schiller’s crimes might have been, Bay had no moral license to make it appear as though Schiller somehow deserved the unspeakable torments to which he was subjected. Indeed, no one seems to argue in real life that he was anything but a decent husband and father—and someone who cooperated with authorities for years without a thought to the jeopardy in which he might be putting himself.
In the words of Pete Collins, the Miami New Times reporter on whose series of articles the movie is based, “Not only had Schiller demonstrated extraordinary courage and endurance in surviving the Sun Gym gang’s torture and attempts to kill him, but he later proved to be indispensable in prosecuting the case against his captors.”
Pain & Gain is unspeakable. What Bay has done, in his distasteful version of a “small and personal” film, is expose his true passion: for the cheap and pathetic rationalizations he and others use to excuse their contribution to the coarsening of the country whose “American dream” he attacks so facilely—even as he, the man with the $125 million paycheck, is living it every second of every day.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.