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Strange Arcs: Mark Wahlberg

Tracing the actor's evolution through six distinct performances

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First a brief member of New Kids on the Block, then an iconic underwear model, and finally a rapper named Marky Mark who even he’s embarrassed to remember, Mark Wahlberg already boasts a strange arc towards becoming an actor. This week he’s performing alongside a CGI teddy bear, which some might argue isn’t so far off from talking to a bunch of farm animals, but Wahlberg has throughout his acting career managed to play roles beyond just the tough-guy action star. He even produced Entourage (show and film) of all things. In select roles, he’s broken out of being a bro or embraced it to the point that he was worthy of an Oscar nomination. In honor of Ted 2, we take a look at six of Mark “Say hi to your mother for me” Wahlberg’s most distinct performances.

Brian Welk
Contributing Writer

Boogie Nights (1997)

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Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Co-stars: Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham

Synopsis: In this sprawling ensemble piece, Paul Thomas Anderson traces the rise and fall of well-hung talent Dirk Diggler (Wahlberg) in the booming porno industry of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. His fall from grace parallels America’s dark lurch from the coke-fueled decadence of the ‘70s to the narcissistic crash of the ‘80s.

Why It’s a Departure: The performance that P.T. Anderson coaxed out of Wahlberg, known then as a hunky center-cut steak in tighty-whities, felt so miraculously revelatory he might as well have drawn blood from a stone. The model-cum-rapper ran the gamut of emotions for this star-making turn, from guileless sweetness to untethered egoism to utter despondency. If Boogie Nights is a Greek tragedy, and in many ways it is, then Wahlberg’s “17-year-old piece of gold” is our hero, getting drunk on his own hubris before being struck down by mysterious movements from a just god. It would’ve been easy for Wahlberg to fade into the background when flanked by complex performances from Reynolds as would-be auteur Jack Horner and Moore as maternal starlet Amber Waves, but he more than holds his own with these seasoned pros. There’s such conviction, such yearning, so much hope and frustration in his every word that even lines like “I fucking know karate!” land with the force and grace of Shakespeare.

Key Scene: In his infinite generosity towards his characters, Anderson concludes the film with Dirk back where he belongs. After addiction and self-absorption led him astray, the final act sees Dirk reconcile with Horner and welcomed back into the fold. As he prepares for his big comeback shoot, Dirk rehearses a monologue in his dressing room before heading to set. Nodding to Raging Bull’s parting words of “I’m the boss, I’m the boss, I’m the boss”, Dirk slowly and methodically works through his lines, taking care to perfect his reading of “Now I’m gonna be nice.” In no insignificant way, Dirk’s summing up his experiences within the film, his uncomprehending rise and self-immolating fall. But the elephant in the room is the 11-inch prosthetic phallus that Wahlberg unloads from his pants and admires for a moment before the film cuts to black. Shaft notwithstanding, it’s a ballsy way to end the picture, and Wahlberg seals it with a quick karate chop and a humble Eastern bow. Just like that, he’s gone, as mysteriously as he had arrived. –Charles Bramesco


THREE KINGS (1999)

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Director: David O. Russell
Co-stars: George Clooney, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze

Synopsis: David O. Russell’s war satire set at the tail end of Operation Desert Storm follows four soldiers out to locate and steal Kuwaiti gold bullions after discovering a map up an insurgent’s ass. Their jingoism and party-animal mentality, be it sleeping with reporters or using foam footballs as shooting practice, gets complicated when Iraqi natives revolting against Saddam’s army look to the four American soldiers for support getting across the Iraqi border.

Why It’s a Departure: Wahlberg was well on his way to action-hero stardom after a series of smaller crime pictures following Boogie Nights, and he had Planet of the Apes, The Perfect Storm, and The Italian Job all on the horizon. A war movie feels like a natural next progression in that cycle. But Russell’s film subverts the war-movie beats with a gradual shift away from the madcap action, comedy, and style by the film’s end, throwing in some meta political commentary and Apocalypse Now references along the way. Wahlberg’s Troy Barlowe is the charismatic bro who even Spike Jonze’s hick wishes he were, but he surprises us as a calmer, even clueless lunk who’s a far throw from George Clooney’s war-weary Major. Wahlberg even demonstrates a polite, sensitive side when he realizes the hypocrisy of President Bush’s message to the Iraqis to stand up against Saddam, but not before he denies his next in command a second glove to perform a cavity search or kills a surrendering soldier at the start of an armistice.

Key Scene: After enduring torture and captivity at the hands of Saddam’s men, a shell-shocked Wahlberg stumbles out of Saddam’s compound with a blank expression and oddly positive and amicable demeanor. He ambles over to Jonze’s character unaware of the lingering danger or really any of his other senses and manages a straight face when Jonze asks him what his captors have dressed him in: “It’s a suit jacket. Fits all right, right?” His performance helps make the scene a delirious and surreal moment out of time before Russell jolts us to our senses with one of Three Kings’ major turning points. –Brian Welk


THE LOVELY BONES (2009)

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Director: Peter Jackson
Co-stars: Saoirse Ronan, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon

Synopsis: Based on Alice Sebold’s weepy novel, the 14-year-old Susie Salmon is murdered by her creepy, bespectacled neighbor with a comb-over that screams he’s a child molester. While trapped in the picture-perfect, CGI-rendered purgatory known as the “In-between,” Susie attempts to contact her grieving father (Wahlberg), who obsessively searches for his daughter’s killer.

Why It’s a Departure: Wahlberg has simply never played the father figure, complete with an affectionate glint in his eye and a devotion and care for his missing little girl. In a better movie that didn’t foreshadow itself into the ground and didn’t make you queasy at the thought of how great it is to get murdered because of the paradise you’re sent to, Wahlberg might’ve really had something. He spins fatherly idioms with the best of them, and he’s rendered completely numb and helpless when he finally starts to piece together that his leery neighbor building giant animal traps in his backyard might’ve killed his girl. And he looks good with that long, shaggy ‘70s haircut.

Key Scene: Wahlberg plays a dad with a peculiar hobby: building scale models of ships in bottles while Susie rolls her eyes at his massive collection. He tells Susie how building these ships is about looking at all the little details and seeing through a project until it’s done. It’s arguably the least melodramatic and most subtly written scene in the whole movie, and Wahlberg’s quiet delivery ultimately feeds into his motivation to hunt down every lead and every neighbor. It’s a shame he isn’t in the film more and that he meets such a pitiful end. –Brian Welk


THE OTHER GUYS (2010)

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Director: Adam McKay
Co-stars: Will Ferrell, Eva Mendes, Michael Keaton

Synopsis: Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell play odd-couple cops who must work together to unravel a corporate conspiracy to defraud the Policemen’s Union and embezzle a whole lot of cash. Director Adam McKay sends up cop-movie tropes while making a surprisingly urgent statement on the ugly state of rampant capitalism.

Why It’s a Departure: As the more naturally goofy of the pair, Ferrell ends up with a lot of the best lines. Even so, Wahlberg struck a deep vein of comic potential by caricaturing his own filmography. During the 2000s, Wahlberg established himself as the ill-mannered tough-guy type, playing men prone to violence in The Departed, Shooter, We Own the Night, and Max Payne. As detective Terry Hoitz, Wahlberg’s still got the hair-temper trigger, but now even the most minor annoyance sends him flying into a rage. Capitalizing on the fact that Mark Wahlberg’s voice of exasperation is very silly, McKay has him fuming over everything from Ferrell’s ladylike stream of urine to the logistics of peacock flight. In The Other Guys, Wahlberg and Ferrell make for a classic study in opposites: the former nearly choked out by his own blind anger, the latter taking inoffensive blandness to new extremes.

Key Scene: The pièce de résistance of Wahlberg’s boyish rage comes when he decides to burst into his girlfriend Francine’s (Lindsay Sloane) dance class and demand that she take him back. Anyone familiar with the beats of cop flicks recognizes what must happen — she’ll recognize the honor and duty of his calling as a keeper of the peace and agree to take him back, even though she hates that he must risk his life to protect so many others. Except Wahlberg and Sloane’s characters are playing out two entirely different scenes. She’s got her head on straight, telling him that his visit is completely inappropriate and that he needs to extricate his head from his ass. But Wahlberg’s trapped in a more traditional cop-movie universe, exhorting his ex-lover to stop “shaking it in this strip club for dollar bills” and referring to her handsome dance partner as a “crack addict junkie.” His strangled tenor raises higher as he gets more frustrated, and the bizarre words of support that Ferrell shouts from the background make the situation even more hilariously off-base. –Charles Bramesco


THE FIGHTER (2010)

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Director: David O. Russell
Co-stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo

Synopsis: Based on the life of boxer Micky Ward (Wahlberg) and his crack-addicted brother, Dicky Eklund (Bale), The Fighter is David O. Russell’s drama of family dynamics, a portrait of small-town Lowell, Massachusetts, and addiction all packaged in an entertaining sports movie. Micky is a boxing “stepping stone” stuck in bad fights arranged by his over-protective family until a woman comes into his life and helps him on the road to a title shot.

Why It’s a Departure: In a movie where every one of these thickly accented people have big personalities and even bigger hairdos, Wahlberg has to fight outside of the ring to even get a word in. He’s a natural to play a Boston-bred boxaahh, with the virility and the looks to make him convincing in a fight, but while he could’ve played as broadly as Bale, Leo and Adams (all Oscar nominees and two of them winners), O. Russell forces him to deliver arguably his most subdued performance. Around his family he’s constantly submissive, ashamed, and even humiliated instead of walking with his usual confident swagger. You could even say he displays some of the new-kid-on-the-block (no pun intended) insecurity he showed as an upstart kid in Boogie Nights. He wins the fight in the end, but it takes the whole movie for him to emerge from his shell.

Key Scene: The Internet had some fun at Wahlberg’s expense with his “Not You” performance late in the film, but it’s his quieter ones that show his range as an actor. When he first meets Amy Adams’ Charlene, he’s left speechless as she catches him staring at her ass. He surprises everyone in the room when he forces the face of one of Charlene’s “admirers” onto the bar. But rather than be noble and come back with a great pick-up line, he quietly sputters out some technical jargon about boxing head-body-head-body, then abruptly pops the question. How could you not say yes to a guy like that? –Brian Welk


PAIN & GAIN (2013)

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Director: Michael Bay
Co-stars: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub

Synopsis: In 1995, petty crook and bodybuilder Daniel Lugo concocted a harebrained scheme to kidnap a Miami real-estate mogul and extort himself all the way to easy street. Things, obviously, do not go as planned, and it’s not long before Lugo and his thick-skulled cronies are scrambling to tie up loose ends. Mark Wahlberg portrays Lugo in this dramatization of the strange-but-true story, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson giving a career-high turn as born-again associate Paul Doyle. Director Michael Bay has a go at Baby’s First Art Film, slathering commentary about conspicuous consumption and the American way all over the film like Sweet Baby Ray’s on a rack of 4th of July ribs.

Why It’s a Departure: Pain & Gain is a tricky beast, challenging you to take it seriously even as it loads on progressively more ridiculous (and classically Bayesque) turns of phrase and stylistic flash. Due in no small part to Bay’s boundless dingbatitude, Lugo ends up being one of the most ambiguous characters Wahlberg’s ever played. He’s an autodidact and pathologically driven, but he’s also a short-sighted, greedy little A-hole. The man has no concept of irony, spouting hollow motivational catchphrases like “Be a doer, not a don’t-er” with the fullest of conviction. Wahlberg’s performance harkens back to his time as Dirk Diggler in its bare minimum of self-awareness, a lightbulb flickering on and off just above his head. Lugo outlines his core philosophy of fitness in the opening voiceover, explaining that the potential to craft one’s body into a rock-hard slab of grade-A beef mirrors the American dream of building a great, massive something from nothing. Like Pain & Gain and like Wahlberg’s take on Lugo, the monologue is unabashedly self-aggrandizing, profoundly stupid, and maybe a little brilliant.

Key Scene: After Lugo’s scheme enters the second of its many tailspins, he attempts to free up some cash by conning a phone-sex magnate into signing a bad contract. The executive didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday, however, and recognizes that Lugo has no idea what he’s doing. Through a combination of retaliatory anger and simple carelessness, Lugo semi-accidentally kills the man and then turns on his wife. It’s a turning point for the character; this could very well be the point at which the audience loses all sense of connection with the man we’ve just seen become a killer, but Lugo’s response of pathetic panic turns the moment blackly humorous. He babbles a mile a minute like a child caught with the broken shards of a cookie jar, tumbling over flimsy explanations. Lugo spends so much of the film reassuring his partners in crime that he’s on top of everything — “I watch a lot of movies, Paul, I know what I’m doing!” — that to see him finally accept that the situation has achieved FUBAR status pays considerable emotional dividends. Wahlberg’s humbled by his own arrogance, a rare occurrence indeed.  –Charles Bramesco

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