The American Dream in Pain & Gain and Spring Breakers

It’s strange to think that two of the most compelling deconstructions of the American Dream in recent years would come from Michael Bay in Pain & Gain and Harmony Korine in Spring Breakers.

Bay’s Pain & Gain and Korine’s Spring Breakers were released within mere weeks of each other. They both feature main characters obsessed with a sense of their own specialness and the pursuit of some ideal Americanism. Practically every other line from Alien (James Franco) or Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) contains some reference to the American Dream. These are films concerned with the quest for that elusive dream and the often-drastic consequences that follow from that quest.

Of the two, Pain & Gain is the more straightforward. In many ways it plays as a trash version of a Coen Brothers film—desperate, idiotic losers come up with a plan to make it big (in this case, kidnap a wealthy man and steal his money) and are faced with the disastrous results of their own idiocy (dead bodies, drug problems, the police, etc). The Coens claimed Fargo was based on a true story (it wasn’t). Michael Bay rubs your face in the fact that his ludicrous story is true. Pain & Gain doesn’t have the deadpan wit or subtly of a Coen Brothers film—it’s in your face, all the time. But it does share some of the misanthropy of the Coens.

Spring Breakers is more elliptical. It deals with repetition. Korine’s themes are drawn out through the repeated dialogue and images. The hypnotic beats that overlay the images are as important as the lines within the scenes. It’s a story of four college girls who go down to St. Petersburg, Florida, meet a gangster rapper named Alien, and cut loose pursuing their American Dream through violence and debauchery. There have been some comparisons between this film and the work of Terrence Malick. The comparison isn’t all that ridiculous. Just like Malick, Korine is more interested in what the structure of the piece says than what the narrative itself says.

At the centre of both of these films are sociopathic characters pursuing their wild dreams and destroying anything that comes in their way of achieving them. Daniel Lugo in Pain & Gain and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Brit (Ashley Benson) in Spring Breakers are “Doers,” to borrow the language of Ken Jeong’s motivational speaker from Pain & Gain. They believe they’re special and use this belief to justify their actions, no matter how extreme. Other people have the resources and lives that these characters want. Instead of working to gain these things honestly, they merely set out to take them from others.

Lugo targets Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a wealthy Miami businessman, kidnaps him, and forces him to sign over his assets to Lugo and his pathetic friends, Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie). Candy and Brit insert themselves into the life of the pathetic rapper/gangster Alien, and acquire his goods as well as set their targets on the wealth of his gangster rival. Lugo ends up becoming a psychopathic yes-man. He’s so optimistic in his plans and so oblivious to how he’s hurting people, it's scary. Candy and Brit become angels of death, donned in their neon bikinis with SMGs. Lugo ends up in prison, but Candy and Brit drive off into the night in a sports care, still haunting the American Dream.

While the main instigators themselves are compelling characters, probably the most fascinating individuals in both Pain & Gain and Spring Breakers are the fools taken in by the instigators. Lugo, Candy, and Brit are stupid enough to believe their ludicrous plans will work, but they’re also smart enough to convince even stupider people to follow them.

In Pain & Gain Dwayne Johnson play Paul Doyle, an ex-con who became a Jesus freak in prison in order to overcome his crippling coke addiction. Johnson plays the character as a kindhearted beast, whose simpleminded gentleness contrasts harshly with the violent monster he becomes when he’s coked out. He’s usually Ferdinand the Bull, but wave a red flag in front of him (in this case, coke) and he’ll charge through you, no problem. When Doyle’s given the task of guarding Kershaw, he bonds with Kershaw over their shared membership in AA. He’s always hesitant to do any awful deeds, but he’s too dumb to refuse Lugo’s requests. He’s both victim and tormentor.

Alien in Spring Breakers is a kindred spirit to Paul. He’s a gangster rapper who spews street talk, but it’s soon clear he’s much less dangerous than Candy and Brit. There’s a brilliant scene where Alien shows the girls his bedroom and takes out his multi-coloured shorts: “Look at my shit! I got SHORTS! Every fuckin’ color!” It’s like a bizarre version of the scene where Jay Gatsby shows all his fancy shirts to Daisy Buchanan: the vapidity of the character’s dream laid bare. Alien is a fool, but he’s got grand dreams and he pays for them. His intensions aren’t pure, but there’s no doubt he’s the film’s most layered and sympathetic character.

At their heart, Pain & Gain and Spring Breakers are trash satires. They take this pervasive concept of the American Dream and show how violent it is. Since they’re so in your face about how the awful things these characters are doing are being done in the name of achieving the American Dream, it’s pretty easy to take the characters actions as representing any quest for the American Dream. When boiled down to its core, the American Dream is always about taking from others, asserting your dominance over the weak: climbing the pile of corpses, so to speak. One person can’t rise unless another person falls. Not everyone can be grossly wealthy.

This realization isn’t particularly deep, but satires are rarely subtle. Satire is often emphasized through caricature, humour, and gross simplifications: all utilized in both Pain & Gain and Spring Breakers.

The danger of Pain & Gain and Spring Breakers is that the audience can misread them. These satires can be seen as glorifications of the very things they condemn. I’ve seen more than one Facebook status glorifying the girls of Spring Breakers as badasses, and at my screening of Pain & Gain there were plenty of macho dudes cheering for Lugo unironically.

Perhaps the weakness of Pain & Gain and Spring Breakers is that misreading these films has its root in the source material. Pain & Gain satirizes macho America, but the king of macho American cinema made it. Bay attacks his main characters, but he also fetishizes their absurd masculinity—he’s made an entire career on championing man-children as heroes. The rampant nudity and debauchery of Spring Breakers is definitely satirical, but that doesn’t change the fact that Korine seems to enjoy the sight of booze-soaked breasts a little too much. Not every audience member can be expected to look past the bombardment of trashy images, and Bay and Korine had to expect this.

Pain & Gain and Spring Breakers aren’t brilliant as a whole—they have moments of brilliance combined with scenes of excess—but they’re compelling works from unexpected sources. For essentially mainstream American films, they challenge their audiences in surprising ways and inject meaning into trash entertainment.

Pain & Gain (2013)

Directed by Michael Bay; written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely based on a magazine article by Pete Collins; starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Rob Corddry, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, and Ed Harris.

Spring Breakers (2013)

Written and directed by Harmony Korine; starring James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine.