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A painful journey to dark laughs
This film image released by Paramount Pictures shows, from left, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie and Mark Wahlberg in a scene from “Pain & Gain,” out in theaters this weekend.

‘Pain & Gain’
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris
Rated: R, for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use
Runtime: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Bottom line: Takes dark comedy to disgusting depths

Michael Bay has made a comedy ... sort of.

Bay, director of such touchstones of subtlety as “Bad Boys,” “Armageddon” and the Transformers franchise, tries his hand at comedy with “Pain & Gain.”

The results are predictable in many ways, because Bay brings the same Red Bull-and-vodka-injected-intravenously, taste-be-damned attitude to comedy that he brings to action.

I did not predict at all, though, just how dark this dark comedy would get.

“Pain & Gain” is without question the most bizarre, unsettling major release of the year so far — and remember we just saw “Evil Dead” a few weeks ago.

Dark comedies are intended to push the boundaries of what we may safely laugh at. But “Pain & Gain” grinds up those boundaries into a fine powder, dissolves it and blends it into a protein shake, chugs it down, then gleefully flexes its muscles in the mirror.

It’s the kind of movie that gets off on its own perversity, the same way its lead characters get off on how engorged their reflected bodies appear. There are things in this movie that would make Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino, George Romero, Mario Bava and Dario Argento stand up and give a collective salute.

The action in Bay’s movies is always over the top, but this is the first time he has delved into such depravity.

It all begins with personal trainer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) getting mentally pumped up by a shyster motivational speaker (Ken Jong).

Daniel has a fraud conviction in his past, and his newfound inspiration leads him to develop a plan to kidnap one of his clients, a particularly unlikable businessman named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), and extort all of his assets—all while remaining anonymous.

Daniel enlists the help of fellow bodybuilders Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne Johnson). The three men are all as stupid and delusional as they are muscular.

One thing after another goes wrong with Daniel’s plan, and the trio’s behavior becomes increasingly twisted. They go farther and farther down the rabbit hole until they find themselves committing acts of violence more suitable for “Scarface” or “Hostel” than a comedy.

Which brings us to the real kicker: “Pain & Gain” is based on a true story.

Back in 1999, Miami publication New Times ran a three-part series by Pete Collins chronicling the misdeeds of the real Daniel Lugo and his accomplices.

An unbelievable number of plot details in this movie are factual. Some of the moments are so ridiculous, so demented and so overplayed that we assume they must be fictional actually come straight from Collins’ article, which is corroborated by court documents.

Given this description, you might be asking, is all of this funny?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. Despite being disgusted much of the time, I also laughed a lot.

The absolute best thing Bay does in this movie is embrace the sheer absurdity of his story. It plays out like a whopper of a story someone tells over drinks, the kind of story that begins with, “You’re not going to believe this,” and ends with the listener questioning the truth of the story but entertained either way.

Bay’s actors deserve most of the credit for the movie’s successes. Wahlberg, Johnson and Mackie consistently turn repulsive scenarios into laughs.

Johnson is especially good as a soft-spoken, huge-hearted recovering addict who struggles to live a Christian life while traveling down this descending spiral. It is Johnson’s most complex character and his most demanding comedic role, and he nails it.

Don’t read the preceding paragraphs as an enthusiastic recommendation, though, because “Pain & Gain” is exhausting. The running time is 130 minutes, but it felt at least three hours long.

The movie has the look and frenetic pace of “Crank,” its lead characters are even more devoid of morality than the guys in “Very Bad Things,” and the rabbit hole will be too deep and gruesome for most viewers.

It’s up to you whether you decide to brave this one. I take no responsibility.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on