'Pain & Gain' loses its way

Remember the twin masks - one laughing, one crying - that have come to symbolize theater?

Those are the changes your face will go through watching Pain & Gain, a profoundly, disconcertingly schizophrenic film.

Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, and the suddenly ubiquitous Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson star as obtuse body builders in Florida who take an ill-advised shortcut to the platinum life.

The film starts with considerable energy and wit, plunging us into the world of Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), a steroid-stoked gym trainer who vacillates between thinking of himself as Superman and serf ("I spot people for a living when it comes down to that").

Daniel misapplies an array of self-help mantras to convince himself he deserves more from life. And he uses that motivational babble to recruit a colleague (Mackie, of Gangster Squad) and an addled ex-con (Johnson) for his felonious scheme.

At this point, Pain & Gain is reminiscent of the deliciously warped crime novels of Carl Hiaasen, also set against the gaudy backdrop of South Florida.

Yep, it's all fun and games until someone gets brutalized repeatedly. Before you can avert your eyes, it's Katie, bar the door and break out the chain saws.

This abrupt mid-film switch is all the more jarring because director Michael Bay, known for outsized blockbusters like the Transformers franchise, doesn't seem to realize the film has gotten away from him.

He's still trying to maintain the same jaunty tone even after the content's gone gruesome.

The plot is based on a true story (as the film reminds us often) but Pain & Gain clearly takes more liberties than the Seventh Fleet.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do a clever job, but the exposition is advanced largely through the interior monologues of various characters. The depiction of Lugo's eventual comeuppance is particularly implausible.

As we learned definitively in Tooth Fairy, comedy is not Johnson's forte. But Wahlberg does a commendable job of playing Lugo.

At first. But as this soft-spoken, lovable loser turns into a raging sociopath, cruelly bullying a group of neighborhood kids, Wahlberg loses his grip on the role. The rest of the actors, including Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, and Rob Corddry, are just holding on for dear life.

Perhaps the cast and crew of Pain & Gain convinced themselves they were making a film that would gradually reveal itself as a black comedy.

But you can't go this dark this suddenly without rattling viewers.

Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552, dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv.

Pain & Gain

Directed by Michael Bay. With Mark Wahlberg, Tony Shalhoub, William Haze, Dwayne Johnson, Kurt Angle, Anthony Mackie, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry. Distributed by Paramount Studios.

Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for bloody violence, crude sexual content, nudity, language throughout and drug use).