The Bastardization of the American Dream
By David Baldwin
*Please note this article contains spoilers*
This past weekend, Michael Bay finally unleashed his long gestating Pain & Gain with Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson. It made just over $20-million, nearly one-fifth of the opening of Bay’s last film – Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It had its share of problems (a lengthy and verbose first act, an almost criminal use of narration and a really odd tonal structure to name just a few), but it is easily the best work Bay has done in well over a decade. The man is known for spectacle, and this is his least spectacular film yet.
As I left the theatre, I was unsure of how I felt about the film. It certainly was not at all what I was expecting, especially from an “auteur” like Bay. But at the same time, I was very impressed with what I had just witnessed. I felt disgusted with myself, especially after how much I have hated pretty much the entirety of his directorial output (save for The Rock, which remains one of my favourite action films to this day). But there was something about the film, something I did not quite catch onto as I watched it, that acted as the narrative crux of the whole thing. It dawned on me a few days later, rather obviously, that this was the inherent quest to obtain the American Dream. I mention the phrase and immediately it evokes an aura of tall tales and myths, of true stories of glory and failure – the never-ending search for a practically unattainable euphoria. It is exactly what the characters in this sordid and bleak tale crave the most. It drives their actions, reactions, and is ultimately the cause of their downfall. Well, that and their own stupidity.
While this narrative device may not seem like anything worth noting at first glance, it becomes all the more important when we consider the literary granddaddy of all American Dream-related fiction, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, is set to be released next week after a six-month delay. Even more coincidental, Bay’s film follows nearly a month after the wide release of Harmony Korine’s outrageous Spring Breakers, which again, is about the quest for the American Dream.
But Bay and Korine share more than a penchant for style over substance. In an incredibly bizarre way, they have both created films that expose the so-called American Dream as the farce it really is. Everyone who successfully made something of themselves, who attained this fantasy that eludes so many of us, worked hard for it and did not expect it to just be handed to them. The characters in both of these films pervert the very institution, and go to criminal lengths to achieve it – through the least amount of work possible. These sociopaths believe it is owed to them, and will stop at nothing to get it. It does not matter who gets involved or who they hurt along the way. The force, the very thought of the unattainable, is all they need. For Bay, it is roided-out bodybuilding men; for Korine, it is bikini-clad college girls.
Unlike Bay’s more conventionally drawn story, Korine’s is for all intents and purposes, a hedonistic fever dream. He fools the audience, much like the four young women at the centre of the film, into thinking that spring break is an absolute karmic utopia. You show up on the beach, and you can become an entirely different person among all of the drugs, booze, sex and excess on display. It is what these ordinary women, in an ordinary small town college, so desperately want to experience. They rob a restaurant, use the money to take the plunge and hope their wildest dreams will come true. After they get busted for a strange drug-related charge (despite two viewings, it is still not clear to me why they are arrested), it turns into a dystopic nightmare. They get drawn into the world of Alien (the impeccable James Franco, in one of his best character turns to date), and everything goes to hell.
But what is rather peculiar about the film is that there do not seem to be any consequences for any of the girls in Spring Breakers. No one ever catches them for the brazen robbery that sets the film into motion. They are never formally charged with any drug-related crimes. They are never raped (despite many uncomfortable scenes where it seems to be mere seconds away from happening). And outside of mental anguish on the part of one girl and a bullet wound to another, they make it out generally unscathed. The men on the other hand, are not so lucky.
Contrast that with Pain & Gain, where the three hulking men plan, execute, and successfully get away with torturing and extorting a man for all he is worth. They live their dream lives in beautiful houses with gorgeous women (well, maybe one gorgeous woman and the absolutely one-of-a-kind Rebel Wilson), and try to go about living the lives they always wanted to. But one gets greedy, and slowly they all get dragged into a crime that is even more harrowing and brutal than the last. Having not known the original story, it comes as a bit of a shock when it happens, and the entire movie turns on its head immediately. They eventually get caught (one even loses a toe for some twisted reason), and are all sent to prison. The women in this case seem to merely suffer from the traumatic after effects of knowing the actions of these men.
Oh, and did I mention that this all happens in Florida – the same place as Spring Breakers?
Without getting into a feminist rant, it is interesting to note that the female characters succeed in both films, or come by significant more success than their male counterparts. It may be on purpose for Korine to do this, but Bay is forced to play within the narrative framework of the slightly exaggerated true story he is telling.
The similarities continue on from there, and prove to be all too coincidental that these two specific films would come out so close together. Even stranger is how the marketing and buzz leading up to their releases disguised what they were really about. Spring Breakers was marketed as a wild and crazy party movie, when it is actually a satire that deliberately mocks its young party-going audience. Pain & Gain looked like an odd buddy comedy, when it is really closer to a bleak true crime thriller (I have heard the apt comparisons to the Coen Brothers, but it is downright offensive to even consider putting their work alongside Bay’s). It comes as no surprise then that the audience reaction to both films has been decidedly not great, with people going so far as to claim Spring Breakers is the “fucking stupidest thing [I] have ever watched.”
Is that because you got duped into seeing a movie you did not expect, or because you did not understand what you were watching? Was the perversion and dissection of an ideal too much to handle?
I guess what I am getting at here is that both films feel oddly relevant in 2013, as the next generation begins their ascension to adulthood and start looking towards their own achievements. So far, Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain are two of the most important films of the year. Yes, it has been a rather pitiful year for film so far, but that does not change the power of both films. Come the end of the year, I doubt either will be remembered all too fondly, but I am certain their cultural relevance will become greater as the years go on. These are two films that are heavily in-tune with the zeitgeist of modern society where sociopaths like these characters exist; I am certain some of them even seen these films. I am sure they shrugged them off as being pedantic and ludicrous.
Or of course, I may be looking too far into both films and searching for meanings that are not there…