Somewhere out there in an alternate universe, I'd like to think that Pain & Gain was directed by the Coen brothers. It's a premise that seems ideal for them: the true story of a team of lunkheaded Florida bodybuilders who decide to kidnap a wealthy deli owner and hold him hostage until he agrees to sign over his fortune. The story gets weirder, ultimately involving a porn magnate, a retired private detective, several bushelsful of severed body parts, and a whole lot of stupid choices.
But for whatever reason—karmic punishment?—we live in a universe where Michael Bay directed Pain & Gain. This is not entirely a bad thing: Bay's coked-up camerawork and obscene overuse of filters, slow motion, and other directorial trickery work pretty well with the idiocy on display in the story. The problem comes, as it usually does, with Bay's sense of humor. In Bay's world, no punch line is funnier than laughing at a fat woman because she's fat, and no subtle joke goes unbludgeoned. He's overwhelmed by the tone changes that the script requires, so the third act's hideously gory twists land awkwardly after the first hour's (mostly) harmless shenanigans.
Thankfully, at least Pain & Gain was made with the perfect cast: Mark Wahlberg brings his not-quite-self-aware slowness to the American-dream-believing "mastermind" of the plot, Daniel Lugo, and he's as compelling as you've seen him in a while. Likewise, The Rock is better as a cokehead born-again Christian than he's been in years. Everyone else in the cast—Rob Corddry, Ken Jeong, Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson, Coen regular Tony Shalhoub—acquit themselves admirably, too. I'd like to think that, in the alternate universe I mentioned before, the Coen brothers gathered the same cast to make Pain & Gain, and some of these people won Oscars for it. As it is, in this universe, we're left holding a greasy mixed bag.