If I think I deserve it, the universe will serve it,” Daniel Lugo tells himself and anyone who will listen. Is he trying to convince them, or is he trying to convince himself? “If I think I deserve it, the universe will serve it.” Throw that in a self-help book, and you could move a decent amount of copies. Just another line in a string of pop-hokum that people will shell out honest to good money to either read in books like The Secret or pay to hear at a motivational talk by Tony Robbins. It’s likely the mantra that Jeff Goldblum forgot way back in Annie Hall. “If I think I deserve it, the universe will serve it!” Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, The American Dream!

Pain & Gain is about that American Dream and that very fallacy. Michael Bay may not be the first name that comes to mind with such subject matter, but he handles it incredibly well. Its plot is easily summed up, but the story has much for the viewer to unpack, and a second, maybe even a third viewing, would benefit such a movie. The characters seem simple, but all the things that complicate every one of us complicate them. They are stupid, tragically so, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t believe the words that come out of their mouths. They are broken individuals who are looking for their slice of the pie, and they want to work for it; they just don’t know how. They take shortcuts: steroids, drugs, extortion, anything that appears before them the second they need it. It might not even be their fault; they might actually be the product of a society that values success without much regard for effort. Hard work replaced by shortcuts, a giant business that has been packaged for the average dope that thinks that success and happiness are just around the corner, if only they knew the right street to walk down.

It all starts with Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a personal trainer and a man who believes that he deserves the house, the car, the sandwich company, and the riding lawn mower that his sleazeball client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), worked so hard to get. Kershaw is not a likable or nice guy, no doubt about that, but boy, did he earn every damn penny he has. I wonder if that thought even crossed Lugo’s mind. But Lugo is the kind of guy who is always thinking, but rarely is he thoughtful. Lugo has more in common with Tom Wolfe’s “Master of the Universe” from Bonfire of the Vanities than he does with the common criminal, and that is giving the common criminal a lot of credit.

Lugo makes up his mind to place himself in Kershaw’s position and sets the wheel in motion. What Lugo is willing to do to obtain Kershaw’s business, his possessions, his life takes him firmly out of the good guy camp and puts him so far into the bad guy camp that a jury will one day sentence him to death. Lugo never sees himself as the bad guy. Most of them never do. They see themselves as the hero of a different story. Lugo sees himself as a Robin Hood in a tank top, robbing the rich and giving to the community. Why else would he use his time to set up a neighborhood watch program? Bay and cinematographer Ben Seresin film the actors like the heroes that they think they are: dramatic slow motion, low angles, and sweeping hero camera shots. Bay could remake this movie with an objective camera that shows these giant hunks of mass in all their pathetic and ridiculous glory. It would be a lot less funny, but it might provide an interesting point-counterpoint.

Lugo enlists the help of his dimwitted and steroid-using friend, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), and recently parolee, Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), in his kidnap and extortion scheme. Doyle, in particular, is one of the most interesting characters in the movie as he is a drug addict that was caught during a cocaine-fueled robbery attempt. In prison, he sobered up, found Jesus, and committed his life to Christ and staying clean. Once out of prison, he far too readily hops along for the ride, and when the spoils rain in, you can guess right where Doyle sniffs all his profits. “If I think I deserve it, the universe will serve it.” Says nothing as to what one has to do to maintain it, and Lugo quickly finds out. The problem with Lugo, Doorbal, and Doyle is that their heads are so far up their asses that they could only maintain a scam like this for a few months. All three of them need more money, but the second scam doesn’t go nearly as smoothly as the first if you could even call it smooth.

None of these people exist in a vacuum, and it is easy to see how like-minded people all end up together. Lugo’s boss, John Mese (Rob Corddry), ignorantly assists Lugo simply to gain corporate sponsorship for his gym. Lugo picks up a stripper, Sorina (Bar Paly), who herself came from Bucharest because she saw Pretty Woman and figured American streets were lined with johns that looked and spent like Richard Gere. Doorbal’s wife (Rebel Wilson) looks the other way because he buys her a house and lots of nice things. Kershaw goes missing, and no one really seems to care because he was so much of a monster that they are actually happier to have Lugo in their lives. Even if they knew what Lugo did to get Kershaw’s house, money, and company, they would probably still prefer him to Kershaw. The only character that is remotely redeemable is a retired detective played by Ed Harris. All movies need the semblance of a moral center.

There is a lot of bile and bitterness from Bay and his screenwriting team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and it is not unfounded. There is something absurd that these three got so far without anyone stopping them, and they did because this country wants to see people succeed by any means necessary. Many of the reprehensible moments take place in broad daylight while other passersby are present. Some even wave and smile as they continue about their day. If only they knew what was going on.

Much like a quarterback on Monday morning, a director either gets too much of the credit if his team won or too much of the shellacking if his team lost. Rolling out one Transformers movie after the next, Bay became a whipping boy for film critics and not for undue reasons. Pain & Gain shows that Bay is capable of much more and that he can do comedy very, very well. The humor of this movie stems from absurdity, but most importantly, it comes from depicting it bluntly. This is, unfortunately, based on a true story, and the movie will pause briefly at the most absurd moments to remind us of that. Truth is stranger than fiction, and even though the events take place in 1994 and 1995, the sentiments expressed still exist in post-recession America. Lugo held the same sentiment in 1995 that many in the Occupy movement do today, that so much more could be done with that money than they are doing with it. Lugo doesn’t just want to tax the rich to pay for everyone else; he wants to actually take it from them. I would be willing to be that there are a lot more Daniel Lugos out there in 2013, and they might be willing to go to the same lengths. The Victor Kershaws of the world better watch out; they’re coming for you.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pain & Gain (2013)
Directed By: Michael Bay
Written By: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely based on the magazine article and book “Pain & Gain” by Pete Collins
Produced By: Michael Bay, Ian Bryce, Donald De Line
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry, Bar Paly, Rebel Wilson
Paramount Pictures, Running Time 129 minutes, Rated R, Released April 26, 2013.