04/18/2013 10:41 am ET Updated Jun 18, 2013

Mark Wahlberg Delivers Pain and Gain and Just a Little Controversy

"God! I need a horse tranquilizer after that movie!" said one patron staggering out of a screening of the new Mark Wahlberg/Dwayne Johnson flick, Pain and Gain.

"Oh, how lucky" said the event organizer Andrew Saffir of The Cinema Society, "That's what we're serving." And he wasn't kidding. A towering, crop-haired blonde waitress with the Eiffel Tower tattooed on her calf, offered a drink with fumes so strong, only the alkies could take it. (Horse tranquilizers actually play a vital part in the movie.)

The after-party happened at the James Hotel and was studded with 50 Cent, Joshua Bell, Carol Alt, Dan Abrams, Paul Haggis, Carlos Leon, Scott Gorenstein, Ben Shenkman and the usual men and women too beautiful to even bother having names.

You can read last week's Hollywood Reporter on the rivalry between Saffir, a relative newcomer to the party scene, and the iconic Queen of the Night Peggy Siegal. Hilarious! "I don't hate Peggy!" said Andrew, when I mentioned the article. Ah, there's still good old fashioned fun to be had in Manhattan!

I arrived late at the Crosby Street Hotel and the star, Mark, was already there, working the press line. This guy knows his stuff. He stopped for every outlet, gave each a slightly different version of the answer he's just given previously, was unfailingly polite, and looked like a million well-muscled dollars. (He still has, from certain angles, that old Calvin Klein-underwear-ads-tough-sweet babyface.) And he speaks with a soft, strong voice that seems to have a salutary effect on wherever he directs it. In short, age has not withered his infinite variety. Or his biceps. Not surprisingly, Men's Fitness co sponsored the event.

The last time I spoke to Mark was long ago at a Trump hotel in Manhattan. It was fascinating. He was like a choir boy. His next interview was with the edgy Interview magazine. He did not come off there like a choir boy. He was smart enough to play the angles and know who he was talking to and what the audience was. I admired him after that. He went on to become a big star and a fine actor.

As Mark extricated himself from the excited clutch of reporters, I said, "You probably don't recall, but..." He said, "Of, course! You interviewed me at the Trump, years ago, after I did Fear. That he recalled me perhaps wasn't too much of a surprise, that he remembered where and when, well -- he is remarkable.

I asked Mark how he was doing, and he said, somberly, "Not too good today. I'd rather not be here," indicting the frenzy, "But, I have to, for the movie." (Mark hails from Boston, site of the terrorist bombing.) I told him, as I have written, that he "wuz robbed" of an Oscar nod for The Fighter. His quiet, steady performance held the film together. He ducked his head a bit (really!) said thanks and then said, "You really have to see my next, Broken City. You'll like that." (He acts in and produced that one, co-starring Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta Jones.)

"What about this Pain and Gain'?

Wahlberg laughed. It's funny, it's nutty. It's pretty violent. Maybe it's an acquired taste."

I love Mark Wahlberg.

  • Directed by Michael Bay of Transformers, and other action movies of varying quality, this movie is a twisted tale -- based on true events -- of three bodybuilders of varying intelligence. None are Mensa graduates. They become involved with a kidnapping that goes wrong in every way possible. The families of the real victims are not amused and have complained to Paramount, but the studio had no intention of bowing to their feelings, citing "Pain and Gain" as a "loose' interpretation of events, played for violent laughs. Perhaps they have a point. After all, we survived "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer." And anyway, most of the audience has no idea that the movie is a real story. It happened more than a decade ago and was a local big deal in Miami.

Pain and Gain is one of the slickest, sickest movies I've ever seen. (It's Tarantino-esque without the dark, eloquent wit.) It is funny, but directed at lighting speed. Its fast edits don't disguise the fact that it could have used some judicious editing. All the stars are excellent; Wahlberg and Johnson have always had genuine comedy chops. And after many inexplicable years on TV's "Monk," winning three Emmys in a row, this is the only thing in which I've really liked Tony Shalhoub (He is the kidnapping victim who just won't die!) Ed Harris is also on hand as the grizzled detective who is simply not going to let these goons get away.

Because I seemed to be one of the few in the screening room who knew this was really a tarted-up true tale, I couldn't quite get into the sprit of the thing. Also, I felt, after the lights came up, that I'd been hit by a two- by- four. Was I giddy from amusement or simply bleeding out? It was a difficult call.

I have more than a little affection for Mark and Dwayne, and I'd like to see Pain and Gain not go down the drain. On the other hand, it's the kind of movie that even if it "underperforms," will make a bundle overseas and on cable. Nobody will be a loser here.

  • A little P.S.: Back in the day, Mark got himself in trouble as a kid. When fame hit him, thanks to those crotch-grabbing underwear ads and his brief career as a rapper, he gained a further reputation as a "bad boy." He acted out, said stupid things, got into fights. Conventional wisdom predicted he'd flash out fast. He didn't. Now 19-year Justin Bieber is having his own "bad boy" year -- the bizarre shirtless airports struts, reckless driving, lunging at the paparazzi, onstage collapse, revealing tweets from his hospital bed, the seemingly ego-centered Anne Frank remark, and on and on. Chris Brown is praying for Justin! Conventional wisdom declares his 15 minutes are up. Even I have referred to Justin's behavior as "obnoxious."

But maybe he's just being 19. Will he last beyond his soon-to-end "teen sensation" period? Perhaps. Let's allow him to find out on his own. Who doesn't act like a jerk at 19?

Throw in rich and famous and it's "Nothing to see here folks, let's move along."

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