Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Bling Ring vs. Pain & Gain: Gender and excess

I chose to watch The Bling Ring this weekend over World War Z. I think a big part of me wanted to absolve myself of an earlier cinematic sin - paying to see Pain & Gain, an off-putting piece of rancid popcorn from Michael Bay. Unfortunately, the two movies wound up being pretty similar. For starters, I left hating both of them. 

Plot-wise, the movies are very similar - a group of kinda dumb people decide they deserve a different, more opulent lifestyle, and take a coo coo bananas route to achieve it. (They also snort an alarming amount of cocaine.) Eventually, they make enough dumb mistakes to get caught, one of them turns on the others, and everybody goes to jail. 

Aesthetically, the movies are only similar in that they each showcase their directors' singular visual style. As you'd expect, Bay's movie is full of lurid colours, loving shots of men's muscles, and leering shots of women's asses. It's all very exhausting. Coppola's movie is just the opposite - washed out colours, lingering shots of jewelry and shoes, and a metric goatload of women doing very little in slow-motion. 

I don't really get who these movies were meant for, and I don't think the directors did either. I think they both started out to satirize their subjects' vapidity, but just fell victim to it. Brainless tough guy wannabes are Michael Bay's bread and butter; the same goes for Sofia Coppola and trendy young aesthetes. Making fun of your target audience - especially when you're kind of a member of that audience yourself - is very tricky business, and neither filmmaker pulls it off.

But it is interesting to look at these two movies next to each other. They create hyper-gendered worlds, and their characters pursue goals that almost parody gender norms. 

In Pain & Gain, the men want to be strong, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and become respected leaders in their community. When they feel stressed out or need to think, they often grab dumbbells and start pumping away. Meanwhile, the young women in The Bling Ring aspire to be beautiful and own beautiful luxury items. When they're stressed, they pop Adderall and smoke.

And ask their gay friend to accessorize them flawlessly.
The women want to inspire envy; the men want to inspire respect. Both movies take the ideals each gender is supposed to aspire to - strength for men, beauty for women - to their grotesque extremes. They turn their protagonists into unsympathetic cartoons of manhood and womanhood. 

The movies' gendered natures provoke different responses as well. When the trio of idiots in Pain & Gain do or say moronic things, for the most part you laugh at them without hating them. Their warped view of the American dream, even though it includes the same obsession with wealth as the Bling Ring girls have, is still more relatable than wanting to be stylish. Mark Wahlberg's character is particularly fixated on having a deluxe lawn mower, which is way more "middle America" than a pair of Louboutins. Stereotypically male pursuits just seem more admirable, and it's easier to hate entitled teenage girls than entitled male bodybuilders. 

Also, it's impossible to hate The Rock, because...The Rock. 
It doesn't help that the female characters in The Bling Ring are totally opaque. Near the end, ringleader Rebecca tries to negotiate with the police, offering to give them information in exchange for leniency (which she never gets). The movie never shows her friends reacting to her betrayal. Nor does it investigate why the group never rats on the one girl who gets off scot-free because her face never appeared on any security footage. The shifting loyalties between a group of friends makes for interesting drama, so it's particularly annoying that Coppola chose to ignore it altogether. As the audience, we're forced to project any negative stereotypes we have about fame-obsessed teenage girls. 

Pain & Gain goes in the opposite direction - each male lead gets his own narration, so we're never unclear on what each one is thinking. Of course, the narrative is so jumbled that their thoughts are not really consistent, and there's such a thing as too many narrators. Where The Bling Ring undershares, Pain & Gain overshares about everything its vain, self-obsessed 'heroes' think and feel.

What makes self-aggrandizing vanity so much more appealing when men do it? Whatever it is, Bay worked it well enough to sell his trio of lunkheads way more successfully than Coppola. Moviegoers helped Pain & Gain earn back almost all of its $26 million budget in one weekend. The Bling Ring? One tenth of its $20 million budget with its wide release. 

1 comment:

  1. I feel like those zebra pants behind The Rock would have made a perfect cameo in The Bling Ring.