Mark Wahlberg versus Mark Wahlberg: A tale of two actors

How many Mark Wahlbergs are there?

I ask because I like the guy who showed up in this week's “Ted 2.” I like goofball Mark Wahlberg. I like belligerent Boston Mark Wahlberg. I like dancing silly Mark Wahlberg. I like dim bulb but well-meaning Mark Wahlberg.

I do not, however, care for “I'm smarter than I look” Mark Wahlberg. I do not like humorless Mark Wahlberg. I do not particularly care for serious action mode Mark Wahlberg. And when I look at the ones I don't like side-by-side with the ones I like, I find it hard to reconcile that this is all one person.

So again… I ask… how many Mark Wahlbergs are there?

When Paul Thomas Anderson's “Boogie Nights” was released, it was a breakthrough for the young actor, part of a banner year in his nascent acting career. He had made a few films before that, including “Renaissance Man” and “The Basketball Diaries,” and while “Fear” isn't a very good movie, there is one scene involving Wahlberg, a rollercoaster, and Reese Witherspoon's nether regions that is damn near camp heaven.

In 1997, though, Wahlberg suddenly started to snap into focus as an actor. Both “Traveler” and “Boogie Nights” cast him as young and not particularly bright, defined by his drive rather than his actual IQ, and both films seemed to prove that, given the right role, he could shine. He was, in fact, a “big bright shining star,” and Dirk Diggler is in many ways the defining use of Wahlberg in anything so far. That movie is often hilarious (I could watch Wahlberg and John C. Reilly argue with a recording engineer all day long), occasionally heartbreaking (Dirk Diggler debased in that car towards the end or Scotty's awkward confession of love), and genuinely self-aware. That's not an accident, and it's not just PTA using him, either.

Watching him struggle in “The Big Hit” and “The Corruptor,” it was clear this guy wasn't built to play it straight. That's just not who he is. “Three Kings” is a small masterpiece, still one of the best things David O. Russell has ever touched, and Wahlberg is wide open as Troy Barlow, the most decent character in the film. George Clooney and Russell may have been locked in a real-life behind-the-scenes battle of the wills, but that just gave Wahlberg a chance to sneak in and steal the whole damn thing.

If not for that performance, I might have given up on Wahlberg sometime during his next wave of work. “Rock Star” and “Planet of The Apes” are about as bad as it gets, and “The Truth About Charlie” is not just tone-deaf, it's tone-blind and tone-dumb, too. He's a block of wood in those movies, without charisma, and when you look at those next to the films that work, what becomes clear is that there are some things where he is so uncomfortable, so out of his comfort zone, that it almost feels like he's never been on film before. “The Italian Job” is another film where he's leeched of anything that resembles charm or character, and it's no fun, something that seems counter-intuitive when you're talking about a heist film.

There were some signs of life. While I'm not crazy about “The Perfect Storm,” what it does right is the casting of him as a prototypical blue-collar type from a very specific region of this country. When you see him in Seth MacFarlane's “Ted” films, he has finally taken the Boston and turned it up as far as it will go, but there's a definite correspondence between how much fun Wahlberg is in a film and how much Boston he allows himself to show. It also helps when he is willing to be silly, as in David O. Russell's “I Heart Huckabees.” It's an uneven film, and it sounds like it was a nightmare to make, but there are things to like in it, and one of those things is Tommy Corn, the king-size goofball played by Wahlberg. There's a moment in the film where he is the first one to the scene of a fire, and he is so happy that he ends up dancing. It may be one of my favorite moments of his in any film because of the childlike joy and the pure expression of it.

The Wahlberg films that really work, where the right Wahlberg shows up, include “The Other Guys,” “The Fighter,” and “Pain and Gain.” I would encourage you to see “Four Brothers” or “Invincible,” and I am surprised by how much I enjoyed “2 Guns.” But there are films where he's brutally miscast like “The Lovely Bones” or “The Gambler,” or films that just don't give him anything to work with like “Contraband” or “Broken City,” and every now and then, he finds himself positively drowning in the ridiculous, as in “The Happening” or “Max Payne.”

Word is he has a contractual option to appear in more “Transformers” films, and that's a damn shame. I'm sure he's well taken-care-of for the films, but talk about a guy who has no business being in something. He looks like he not only does not know exactly where to look when playing scenes with CGI elements, but like he couldn't care any less. He not only doesn't believe in Optimus Prime, he refuses to take anyone else seriously if they're fully committed to it. It's a terrible performance, but it's because he has no business being there. I would imagine that Michael Bay had so much fun with Wahlberg on “Pain & Gain” that he thought it would carry over, and instead, it pointed out the definition of “range.”

There's one specific film I haven't mentioned yet, and I set it aside because it is perhaps the best example since “Boogie Nights” of a truly great filmmaker taking Wahlberg for what he is and utilizing him with almost surgical precision. Martin Scorsese has a knack for seeing someone's potential in ways that even the actor might not recognize, and in “The Departed,” Wahlberg stands firm in the face of a monster cast, all giving monster performances. He never bats an eye, never gives an inch, and never misses a beat, and he embraces the Boston with palpable glee. It's a funny performance, but it is also ferocious. You can see just how determined Wahlberg is to make sure no one overshadows or outshines him, and that hunger makes him positively incandescent.

You can read my review of “Ted 2,” which is in theaters now, or check out the new trailer for “Daddy's Home” above. Moving forward, I have no doubt we'll continue to see both of the Mark Wahlbergs, the good and the bad, until directors stop trying to force him to be something he's not.