De Niro’s ‘Wedding’ Horror; Muscle ‘Pain’; ‘Mud’: Movies

Near the end of Michael Bay’s juiced-up true-crime comedy “Pain & Gain,” a caption reminds us that “this is still a true story.”

A useful message, what with the guy onscreen grilling four severed hands on a hibachi.

“Pain and Gain” (adapted from Miami New Times articles by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) stars Mark Wahlberg as a bulked-up Florida gym trainer who recruits two other lunkheads in a kidnapping caper that spirals absurdly and violently out of control.

Based on a real incident that left two people dead and sent two to death row, “Pain and Gain” aims to be “Boogie Nights” with bodybuilders, and sometimes gets there.

Wahlberg, at his explosive best and beefed up to his underwear-model glory days, plays Danny Lugo, who in 1994 aspires to more than helping wealthy, flabby clients get toned.

Along with a co-worker who needs expensive penile injections (Anthony Mackie) to better service his size-obsessed wife, and an unemployed, dimwitted born-again ex-con (Dwayne Johnson), Lugo kidnaps a client (Tony Shalhoub) so vulgar and mean-spirited no one misses him.

Bound, blindfolded and tortured for a month in a sex-toy warehouse, the stubborn Kershaw eventually signs over his wealth to the steroidal stooges.

Drunk Liar

Doused with booze and gasoline, he’s set afire and run over by a car, surviving only to be dismissed by the police as a drunken liar (“I was Tasered by Ninjas!”).

Still a true story -- and not even the end of it.

Kershaw hires a retired private detective (an expertly low-key Ed Harris) to track down the kidnappers, who have moved on to another project that gets even uglier.

With a career built on super-charged sci-fi action (“Transformers”), Bay knows the key tricks of the genre: super slow motion and extreme close-ups of battered, bloody flesh.

But he doesn’t have the operatic panache of Quentin Tarantino. At well over two hours, “Pain and Gain” should have gone for lean and mean.

“Pain and Gain,” from Paramount Pictures, is playing across the U.S. Rating: **1/2 (Evans)

‘Mud’ Puddle

Buy a boat in a tree, and you’ll buy anything.

And so we do in “Mud,” Jeff Nichols’s yarn about a charming outlaw on the run, drizzled with Tennessee Williams lyricism and Huck-and-Tom adventure.

Add that strange tree-top houseboat (left by a long-ago flood) and some Juniper -- that’s the name of this film’s sweet bird of youth -- and you’ve got a likeable mess of overheated gumbo.

Matthew McConaughey, his frame as long, lean and unwashed as his hair, plays the title character, an outlaw hiding in the woods of a Mississippi River island.

Drawn by rumors of the boat, 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover the tale-telling Mud, a wanted man. The smooth-talking dude charms the boys with romantic yarns about his beloved Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and the murder he committed in her defense.

Soon the boys are bringing Mud his daily ration of beans and news about trampy Juniper’s whereabouts, along with the latest doings of some vicious bounty hunters.

River Rats

Nichols, who also wrote the film, winds through the characters’ tales -- an approach that pays off when the story ambles through the boys’ river-rat stories.

Ellis lives on a rickety houseboat with his bickering parents, his heart broken by a teasing, slightly older girlfriend. He’s particularly drawn to Mud’s moony-eyed tales of love and adventure.

The boy also befriends the crusty old coot (Sam Shepard) who lives next door and has secret ties to Mud.

But “Mud” gets stuck in the bounty-hunter stuff, and Nichols lets his fable drift off to a shoot-em-up resolution.

“Mud,” from Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, is playing across the U.S. Rating: *** (Evans)

‘Big Wedding’

Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Robert De Niro, Christine Ebersole, Robin Williams, Katherine Heigl, Amanda Seyfried ... long ago I learned not to look at a roster like that and ask, “How bad could it be?”

“The Big Wedding” hits bottom early, when the bridegroom (Ben Barnes) insists that his adoptive parents (Keaton and De Niro) pretend they’re not divorced, so that his biological mother (Patricia Rae), a pious Catholic who’s traveling up from Colombia, won’t boycott his wedding.

It isn’t funny when his father’s current partner (Sarandon) storms off wounded, or when the women punch De Niro in the face, or when fully dressed people fall into pools or ponds.

I didn’t laugh at the racist jokes about brown-skinned Colombians or gasp at the revelation that a prissy woman is gay, though those tacky moments did at least break the torpor.

Otherwise the movie, written and directed by Justin Zackham, is as mild as milk, with music so tinkly and lighting so pastel it could pacify a baby.

“The Big Wedding,” from Lionsgate, is playing across the U.S. Rating: 1/2* (Seligman)

‘Reluctant Fundamentalist’

Mohsin Hamid’s bestselling 2007 novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” gets a thorough make-over by director Mira Nair -- changes that benefit neither book nor film.

Hamid’s novel, adapted here by screenwriter William Wheeler, is a first-person account of a Pakistani man’s soured infatuation with both America and an American woman in the years surrounding 9/11.

Nair (“Mississippi Masala,” “The Namesake”) and Wheeler impose a sort of “Interview with the Vampire” format on the story, adding the character of a CIA agent posing as an American journalist (a flat Liev Schreiber) who questions radical Pakistani professor Changez Kahn (the appealing newcomer Riz Ahmed) about his possible involvement in the kidnapping of an American academic.

Changez agrees to the interview, but only if the reporter promises to hear his whole story, from Princeton to Wall Street.

Once the protege of a Master of the Universe (coolly played by Kiefer Sutherland), the rising-star Changez faces prejudice and bigotry once the Towers fall. He’s strip-searched at airports, hassled by cops and called Osama by a redneck.

Jumping between modern-day Pakistan and yesterday New York, “Fundamentalist” is most engaging during young Changez’s wide-eyed Wall Street phase.

Point Taken

But even there Nair makes her points with embarrassing bluntness, posing comparisons between violent terrorism and the job-killing profit-squeezing of Changez’s firm (the film resolutely rejects both).

The heavy-handedness -- the strip-search begins with the loud thwack of rubber gloves -- reduces Hamid’s characters to talking points.

Least credible is Changez’s Soho-artist girlfriend Erica (a miscast Kate Hudson), who unveils a gallery installation featuring a flashing neon version of the “Falling Man” photograph that would have been unlikely, if not unthinkable, in the dusty, jittery months after the attacks.

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” from IFC Films, is playing in select theaters and at the Tribeca Film Festival. Rating: **1/2 (Evans)

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on Broadway and Lewis Lapham on books.