'Spring Breakers' and 'Pain & Gain' Are Pretty Much the Same Movie

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This spring, film programmers were handed a gift on a fluorescent pink platter. Making their debuts in theaters with only a little more than a month between them, new works by a most unlikely duo, Harmony Korine and Michael Bay, make for a perfect pairing. In addition to surface similarities, both films explore the American Dream as it exists in the 21st Century. They compliment one another in the most basic of ways, along gender lines, both in their plots as well as their narrative forms. So if you have the fortitude, come with me on a trip to a very special place.

A place called “Florida.”

As I discussed with Sunshine State native Amy Seimetz just the other day for Film.com, there's something a little nuts about this place. Maybe it's the heat, but a palpable sense that violence can erupt at any moment is, unfortunately, a common perception. Florida occupies a unique place in aspirational culture. Unlike New York (high finance) or Los Angeles (show biz), Florida seems to exist solely for conspicuous and aggressive recreation. It’s the place to go when you go to show off.

The bored coeds of "Spring Breakers" are lured there, and like salmon going upstream, no obstacles (like insolvency) will get in their way. For the trio of errant bodybuilders in “Pain and Gain,” a world of dizzying sensations and exposed flesh is waiting for them upon their arrival. Both Korine and Bay make great use of outlandish neon colors. This is a place where where a green or a pink or a yellow isn't living up to its full potential without burning into your retina with a force that seems powered by the sun. Do it big or don't do it at all.

Living up to your potential is what is at the heart of both films. Our characters, (dunces all, or at least easily fooled, it's important to point out) have been led to believe that only excessive bling can bring them happiness. For the ladies of "Spring Breakers" it is because they are hot and they deserve it. For the men of "Pain & Gain" it is because they are disciplined and they've earned it.

While the capitalist programming has the same end for both sets of characters, there are divisions. Both are primed to use their bodies to get what they want. The image of the spring breakers "on trial" in their bright bikinis may seem ridiculous, but that is one of the key messages of the film. Stand before us, nubile flesh, and let us judge you.

It is immediately after this scene where James Franco, their Moses figure who leads them to the promised land (while being unable to enter himself) gathers them into his flock. The hazy, drugged-out dream of luxury goods ("look at my shit!" in case you forgot) leads the spring breakers into a life of criminal behavior and violence that seems right.

This same absence of moral culpability exists for the "Pain & Gain" gang. They've worked hard, dammit, to get the abs, biceps and pecs that set them apart from average men. (There's not much backstory given about just how much bulimia is involved with the gals from "Spring Breakers," but that film does blend easier into fantasy.) The bodybuilders' effort should come with some reward, and that reward should be financial. That Victor Kershaw, a lazy braggart, lives the high life while they toil seems an obvious injustice.

Once the criminal actions are set in motion the two films, while both featuring a hyper-stylized and colorful visual palette, diverge considerably. Korine, the artiste, is more feminine. Not driven by rigid plot points, his film comes in waves, a collage of images, a wash of voice-over, ebbing and flowing without a rigidly defined climax.

Bay's "Pain and Gain," chock-a-block with images of dildoes, a massive airplane penetrating the frame shot from below and a PICKLE, for God's sake, hurled as a weapon, is the masculine mentality writ large. It concludes with a series of final bangs (cars hurling bodies in slow motion,) has a quick peck-on-the-cheek trial scene, then rolls over and goes to sleep.

There are plenty of movies about American consumerist values luring people to violence. "Spring Breakers" and "Pain & Gain" work so well in tandem because neither are meant to be taken too seriously. Even though "Pain & Gain" is based on truth (and some of its more outlandish elements are factual) the visual alacrity and hammed-up comedy forces Bay to remind us, via a graphic in the third act, that this is still a true story. If I may drop the Z-bomb, both films play to Slavoj Žižek notion of "carnival."

Both films swirl around and make, so one would hope, indictments about the corruption in our culture. Both films are also really, really fun, appealing to our baser instincts: violence, T&A and all those neon colors. Whether or not the films succeed in having its spliff hit and/or steroid shot and eating it too is open to interpretation.