One Direction: This is Us (PG) 95 mins *
Pain & Gain (15) 129 mins ***
There was some surprise when Morgan Spurlock was chosen to helm the One Direction documentary. Spurlock, you’ll recall, was the filmmaker whose McDonalds-drubbing 2004 hit Super Size Me railed against the unthinking consumption of corporate product. Might This Is Us feature a graphic sequence in which the director vomits upon repeated exposure to “What Makes You Beautiful”? Would we witness his cerebellum turning to mush after revisiting old X Factors? Alas, no: Spurlock remains off-camera throughout, his participation negated the instant Simon Cowell’s Syco Entertainment logo appears. This is, resolutely, a producer’s film.
Boybands remain profitable yet unsustainable business models – looks fade, as surely as tastes mature – and 1D’s moment may perhaps be nearing its end. All the pocket money in the land couldn’t get the hubris-laden “Best Song Ever” higher than no.2; young Louis Tomlinson has hedged career bets by signing with Doncaster Rovers. The film leaves the boys sitting round a campfire, pondering – like moptopped Alexander the Greats – what remains to be achieved now they’ve conquered the planet. Issued in the summer’s dog days, This is Us might be approached as one final pump of the fanbase before it returns to school and wises up.
As a music doc, Spurlock’s film is even less sincere than 2011’s Justin Bieber: Never SayNever; its candid moments are comprised of what TV execs refer to as “constructed reality” and the rest of us know as untruths. (Why would One Direction be in the woods?) It is, nevertheless, instructive of how pop culture now regards the construction of a narrative as more important than the product; hook the punters on the journey, and the music becomes secondary. In the concert footage, the energy spikes with a cover of Wheatus’s “Teenage Dirtbag”, which displays a craft and feeling lacking from everything else emitted on the band’s behalf.
The biography is one-note: these boys are forever “normal lads”. Harry, sightseeing in sunglasses, resembles a Poundland Dylan; brooding Zayn retreats with his felt-tips in a moment of purest Spinal Tap. A giddy hanger-on, Spurlock swallows this rags-to-riches narrative whole, recruiting doctors to claim 1D’s music makes you happier (how reassuring to learn Simon Cowell has scientists on his payroll), and a cameoing Martin Scorsese in a bid for cross-cultural cred. Yet the triumph This is Us commemorates isn’t creative, but banally commercial: that these talent show runners-up should have achieved a greater market share than, say, The Wanted.
Of course, this teenbeat tale dates back to the Beatles. But its allowance-grabbing reach has never appeared more aggressive than here in 3D, and I’d argue there’s a world of difference between the innocent pleasures of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and the sinister mindlabbery of “Little Things” (“You’ve never loved your stomach or your thighs/But I’ll love them endlessly”), with its laser-honed methods of monetising low self-esteem. Cowell has become very rich by being very shrewd about such matters; while there’s no need to lock up your daughters, I see no harm in teaching them to be a shade more discerning.
The critical reputation of Michael Bay – the Transformers movies’ leerer-in-chief – may now be beyond all repair, but he’s attempting something original with Pain & Gain, the kind of tonally batty one-off only someone who’s made the studios a lot of money might get away with. This is the confounding true story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a dim-bulb gym bunny who, in the mid-1990s, unwittingly initiated a bloody trail of chaos that began with a get-rich-quick scheme and ended in multiple homicides. The zigzag plotting is partly attributable to steroidal jags, but events get so incredible that, shortly after Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is observed tossing severed human hands on a barbeque, an on-screen addendum seeks to remind us “this is still a true story”.
Bay’s early action movies displayed a cocksure humour, but his new film is more subversive, routinely undermining its alpha males, and presenting all-American beefcake as ultimately good for naught. One caveat: Bay’s blunderbuss comic touch, which tends to blast any subtler satire into brash, cartoonish caricature. For once, though, the camera’s obsession with hardbodies, and its grossed-out responses to unwaxed crotches, are absolutely descriptive of the story’s screwy milieu, and not just of one director’s warped worldview. Dumbly enjoyable on some level, indefensible on many others, Pain & Gain remains a guilty pleasure, but I’ll say this for it: unlike the slouchy Spring Breakers, it at least commits to its tackiness, going toe-to-toe with its own characters in debatable judgement and devil-may-care taste.
One Direction: This is Us and Pain & Gain are in cinemas nationwide.