Beyond 'The Other Guys': More Proof Mark Wahlberg Has a Sense of Humor


20th Century Fox

Mark Wahlberg appeared as a shirtless security specialist in the April comedy Date Night, and now he's playing opposite Will Ferrell in The Other Guys, a cop-movie send-up that opens today. Perhaps it's merely a trick of the calendar, but it seems like the actor is bent on reminding the moviegoing public that he has a sense of humor—something he didn't seem to have (about himself, at least) on his promotional tour for the video-game adaptation Max Payne.

When asked in October 2008 about a Saturday Night Live skit in which Andy Samberg impersonated the star talking to animals, Wahlberg came off as more than a little nonplussed, roundly dismissing the current incarnation of SNL and later suggesting on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, in a manner worthy of his foulmouthed staff-sergeant in The Departed, that he wanted to punch Samberg in the face.

Wahlberg appeared on the next episode of SNL alongside Samberg to do some damage control, but on the heels of Max Payne (and The Lovely Bones, where he was a last-minute replacement for Ryan Gosling) came the only two outright studio comedies on the actor's resume. There is already proof, however, in the Wahlberg back catalog of his ability to amuse. He might not have extraordinary range, but he's capable of more than the slightly nasal, flatly pleading tones in Samberg's impression, which I suspect is what rankled Wahlberg most about the whole talking-to-animals business.

It must be acknowledged up front, though, that the Wahlberg performance that elicits the most laughter is not intentionally funny, though it's not really any fault of his; it's hard to imagine any performer overcoming the inane vagueness ("There seems to be an event happening ...") of M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening (2008). Nonetheless, not unlike the 2006 Wicker Man remake starring Nicolas Cage, the increasingly paranoid, increasingly outlandish Happening spellbinds in its own schlocky way.

I think the way to get maximum enjoyment out of Shyamalan's film, about an invisible East Coast contagion that causes people to kill themselves on the spot, is to view it as a spectacularly misguided but nonetheless committed genre experiment—a disaster movie with a disaster so abstract that the whole thing necessarily devolves into a stilted comedy of manners. Wahlberg's credulousness is somehow meant to hold the thing together; needless to say, it doesn't work.

Writer-director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees), on the other hand, has utilized the actor's underestimated comedic chops to the greatest effect. Three Kings (1999) is by far the better film, but the reputation of Huckabees (2004), which features Wahlberg as a man in the throes of an existential crisis, could use some rehabilitation: The film is perhaps best remembered today for an on-set shouting match between Russell and cast member Lily Tomlin that appeared on YouTube three years ago.

Russell's films have a history of rocky paths to completion. Russell and George Clooney reportedly came to blows on the set of Three Kings, and there was also a dispute concerning the script; the problems encountered during the making of Nailed, which suffered numerous production shutdowns in 2008 and is finally due in theaters this year, are too numerous to recount in this space. Wahlberg keeps working with the director, though—The Fighter, a drama featuring the actor as a boxer, is also slated for a late 2010 release—and it's not too hard to see why: Wahlberg appears more comfortable taking risks in Russell's films. Among other things, that means less internalized brooding.

Huckabees is a sort of philosophical detective movie that pits a self-doubting conservationist (Jason Schwartzman) against the department-store behemoth of the movie's title. It boasts a large ensemble cast (Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Huppert, Jude Law, Naomi Watts, etc.), but Wahlberg manages to stand out, turning in perhaps his most unpredictable work as Tommy, a firefighter with a sensitive streak who uses every interaction as an opportunity to declaim the evils of petroleum. At a corporate board meeting near the middle of the film he enthuses, "Poems are amazing!" It's a line Samberg might have had him saying at a petting zoo as a total non sequitur, but in Huckabees Wahlberg's sincerity is both funny and moving—a combination I'd wager you're unlikely to find in The Other Guys.