Film review: Pain & Gain, One Direction's This Is Us - No better way to wash down a plate of beefcake than with a sweet slug of pop

 

Something's wrong. This week I'm in the unsettling position of having enjoyed two films which any right-thinking person should loathe unreservedly. One of them is directed by Michael Bay, the intelligence-insulting machine behind Pearl Harbor and Transformers. And if that weren't heinous enough, the other is a documentary promoting a Simon Cowell boy band.

The first of the two, Pain & Gain (***), is a small-scale character study by Bay standards, even if the characters it's studying are the size of steam rollers. A stranger-than-fiction true story set in Miami in the mid-1990s, it stars Mark Wahlberg as a personal trainer with an addled self-improvement philosophy – something to do with body-building, patriotism and the illegal acquisition of wealth. America, after all, is "the most buff, pumped-up country on the planet".

Unwilling to accept that someone with his pecs and abs shouldn't be a millionaire, he hatches a plan to kidnap a wealthy client (Tony Shalhoub), and force him to sign over his entire fortune. But because his scheme is "too intense" to accomplish alone, he teams up with two even thicker, musclier gym buddies, a born-again ex-con (Dwayne Johnson), and a steroid addict (Anthony Mackie).

The Three Huges then blunder through an endearingly acted, darkly farcical crime plot that could have come from a Carl Hiaasen novel or even – whisper it – a Coen brothers film.

Bay being Bay, of course, the resemblance only goes so far. Pain & Gain would be better if he didn't keep battering us about the head with booming music and frenetic camera-work. If he was worried about losing our attention, maybe knocking half an hour off the running time would have put Bay's mind at rest. But if his film is as brash and oversized as its leading men, it can also be very funny about how ignorant and delusional those men are.

For the benefit of those readers who don't have daughters between the ages of six and 16, One Direction are five young male singers who were thrown together on The X Factor in 2010 when they didn't make the grade as solo performers. Since then, they have become global megastars, and they seem to have spent most of their earnings on hair products and dreadful tattoos. So, I wasn't inclined to appreciate One Direction: This Is Us (***).

After about half an hour, though, I had to conclude that the documentary, directed by Morgan "Super Size Me" Spurlock, was remarkably painless. I wouldn't call it gripping – there are only so many times you can watch one of the band-members murmur, "This is crazy," as he gawps at an arena which is about to fill up with fans.

But it's a zippy, unpretentious tour video with some surprising human touches. Particularly touching are the testimonials of those family members who have barely seen Harry, Zayn, Niall, Louis and Liam since they left for their X Factor auditions.

As for One Direction themselves, they turn out to be amazingly well-adjusted, down-to-earth, wryly funny chaps who are grateful for their sudden fame, despite having a schedule so punishing that the social services should probably be alerted.

Last year's Justin Bieber documentary set out to convince us of his phenomenal talent – and left us in doubt about whether he was convinced of it himself – whereas This Is Us suggests that 1D are well aware of how lucky they are.

They know that they owe their success to the hormones and Twitter addiction of their fans. And they expect to be remembered, one of them says, as "normal guys – but terrible, terrible dancers".

Critic's Choice

Lives intersect in a turbulent Egypt in 2011 ... Winter of Discontent is a timely, angry, political drama from director Ibrahim el-Batou. Meanwhile, Onata Aprile is remarkable as the little girl caught between feuding divorcees Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan in the salutary What Maisie Knew.

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