Who Decided Mark Wahlberg Was Hilarious?

The Oscar-nominated star has decent comedic chops, but as the abysmal ‘The Family Plan’ proves, he doesn’t understand what makes him funny
Who Decided Mark Wahlberg Was Hilarious?

There was a time when Mark Wahlberg was not considered a comedic force. In the early 1990s, he was a rapper who turned himself into a movie star, an impressive feat considering so many assumed he would never be anything more than Marky Mark. Now, at 52, he’s a Hollywood institution with plenty of blockbusters to his name, not to mention two Oscar nominations. And along the way, he also proved he could do comedy, whether starring alongside Will Ferrell or a talking bear. Wahlberg is one of those underdog success stories everybody loves. (That is, as long as you don’t think too much about troubling aspects of his past.)

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But is Wahlberg actually funny? That’s a ridiculous question, of course — everybody’s funny — but the longer his career stretches out, the less convinced I become that he’s a legitimately gifted comic actor in the usual sense. He occasionally shows up in funny movies, but that’s not the same thing — and when he’s in a stinker, like he is this week in The Family Plan, you may forget that he’d ever made you laugh. Stars are in duds all the time, but this Apple TV+ fiasco is a special case — the sort of action-comedy embarrassment that makes you question the star’s ability to pick material for himself or properly understand his skill set. The Family Plan is two hours, which is long enough to ponder just why Wahlberg, who can be funny, isn’t funny in this at all.

Not unlike the recent Ghosted, another Apple TV+ original film, The Family Plan barely feels like a movie. It’s more like an educated guess about what a movie is, introducing a predictable premise and then throwing in some famous people. It’s meant to kill time while you’re folding laundry or looking at videos on your phone. It’s a babysitting device for adults — and, I guess, maybe their kids. You and your whole family can sit around being mildly diverted by this facsimile of motion picture entertainment.

Wahlberg plays Dan, a milquetoast suburban husband and father in Buffalo who’s married to pretty Jessica (Michelle Monaghan). He sells used cars and seems like a nice guy, but he occasionally gives off a weird vibe. Why does he get all paranoid about people taking his picture? Why does he refuse to use social media? And when he’s provoked by some jerks in public, who dump a drink on his head, why doesn’t he fight back? His kids assume he’s just a pushover, but Dan is actually harboring a secret: Nearly 20 years ago, before he met Jessica, he was a government assassin who decided to give up his old life. Well, that old life has come back, with heavily-armed baddies trying to grab him.

That is a familiar but not necessarily unappealing setup: It’s sorta like True Lies, right? But for most of The Family Plan’s runtime, Dan tries to maintain his secret, telling his family that he’s surprised them by planning an impromptu vacation in Las Vegas — and that they’re going on a road trip to get there. Secretly arranging new identities for Jessica and their three kids so that they can ditch their old lives after this vacation, he’lll tell them the truth eventually — if he can keep them from being killed by the dangerous thugs on their trail. 

When Wahlberg first started popping up in films, he played brooding types, with his big breakthrough coming in 1997’s Boogie Nights. He now says he regrets starring in that movie because he’s a religiously devout family man, but there’s no question that Paul Thomas Anderson’s look at the porn industry in the 1970s and 1980s helped convince directors that Wahlberg had the dramatic chops, and could also be funny without trying too hard. (One of the reasons Dirk Diggler is such an enjoyable character is that he’s both a dreamer and not the brightest.) Wahlberg soon started pivoting to action movies — The Perfect StormPlanet of the Apes, The Italian Job — but occasionally he’d show off his comedic side, like in Three Kings, a dark satire of Desert Storm in which he played an overly gung-ho soldier. Movies like Boogie Nights and Three Kings weren’t comedy comedies — you didn’t bust a gut laughing your ass off — but they argued that the guy who had a hit with “Good Vibrations” might have more depth and comedic savvy than first expected.

But 2004 was when his comedic credentials were really first solidified. That year, he reunited with Three Kings director David O. Russell for I Heart Huckabees, in which he portrayed a fireman with anger issues who’s deeply concerned about the environment. An existential comedy filled with oddball characters, I Heart Huckabees saw Wahlberg playing one of his patented regular guys, except the guy was spiraling into despair and rage. It was a shockingly funny performance, partly because it seemed to dislodge something inside Wahlberg, who had never been so unguarded, willing to fall flat on his face but ending up stealing the movie from an impressive cast that included the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Huppert, Jude Law and Lily Tomlin.

That same year, he was behind Entourage, a comedy for which I have little fondness but was undeniably a cultural sensation. Drawing from Wahlberg’s early days in Hollywood, the Emmy-winning HBO series popularized a type of brotastic worldview in which dudes bonded and beautiful women were plentiful. It’s a reductive comparison, but Entourage was the male flipside to Sex and the City, both of them defining their eras. Wahlberg wasn’t one of the series’ stars, but like I Heart Huckabees, it crystallized his persona as that of the ordinary dude who made it big, not unlike Adrian Grenier’s Vincent Chase on the show.

Still, Wahlberg wasn’t actively pursuing comedies, focusing mostly on dramas, snagging those Academy Award nominations for The Departed and The Fighter, the latter another collaboration with Russell. His dramatic chops were continuing to improve, but in 2010, the same year as The Fighter, he also showed off his sense of humor, first as a walking thirst trap in Date Night and then, more prominently, in The Other Guys, in which he played Terry, a badass New York cop stuck with super-nerd partner Allen (Will Ferrell). 

What was so funny about his performance in that Adam McKay action-comedy was that, like Dirk Diggler, this badass cop was really just deluding himself — Terry was mostly just bluster, and the humiliation of that realization was never not amusing. But Terry wasn’t himself hilarious — he was a fool constantly bewildered by Allan’s lack of cool and his inexplicably hot, amazing wife (Eva Mendes). In The Other Guys, Wahlberg was a master of slow-burn exasperation, the straight man forced to deal with a partner who drove him insane. It remains the funniest thing he’s ever done.

Suddenly, Walhberg seemed to shift toward comedy. Ted was a gigantic hit a couple summers later. I think the film stinks — I have a Seth MacFarlane allergy — but Wahlberg once again performed straight-man duty. This has always been his appeal as a comic actor: He’s just a normal bloke, slowly being driven mad by the strangeness around him. Sometimes, he can shift that energy slightly — he’s entertaining as the fun, macho dad in Daddy’s Home and playing another deluded idiot in Pain & Gain — but I can’t think of another current comic star whose secret is that he isn’t the guy with the one-liners or the big gags. Wahlberg finds the hilarity by quietly reacting to the comedic chaos. 

Which is why The Family Plan is so terrible. On paper, the film should work since it exploits his everyman persona, except he has no one funny to play off. Monaghan is a national treasure, but her naive wife character is dull — so are the boring kids who portray their kids. What’s supposed to be hysterical about The Family Plan is Dan’s desperate attempt to prove he’s an unremarkable suburbanite while simultaneously getting involved in car chases and shootouts. This is the sort of action-comedy that requires someone with a striking comic presence, but Wahlberg isn’t that guy. He’s too earnest, too much of a straight-up action dude that there’s nothing inherently funny in him being stuck in this predicament. He can’t make lame jokes hilarious by force of will — that’s not him.

Unfortunately, that’s the only guy we get in The Family Plan, which sees him catering to the same anodyne family crowd that he courted for the Daddy’s Home movies and Instant Family. But what’s strangest about the film, which he produced, is that it doesn’t play to his strengths, forcing him to flail to get laughs. It’s telling that he’s most comfortable in The Family Plan when he’s shooting and running — with his square-jawed heroism, he’s a natural as an assassin. But cracking jokes? He’s hopeless.

Years ago, Andy Samberg did a bit on Saturday Night Live in which he played Wahlberg, who (for some reason) loved talking to animals, telling them to say hi to their mother. The bit’s absurdity was the point, but it also seemed to touch on something profound about Wahlberg’s stardom: All that tough-guy earnestness felt a bit bizarre, didn’t it? The fact that Wahlberg later came on the show to “confront” Samberg about it, then basically did the impression himself only underlined that weirdness — it wasn’t clever at all, because Wahlberg came across as wooden, a bit helpless, exposed even. It was like he didn’t know how to be funny. 

For all the comedies Wahlbeg has done, his funniness is an elusive thing. All comedians are only as strong as what’s written for them, but Wahlberg is especially at the mercy of the script and his co-stars. They create a space where he can shine — otherwise, he’s lost. The Family Plan feels like it should be a slam dunk for him, but it only suggests he doesn’t know his own comedic strengths and weaknesses. He has no partner — no one to bounce off of — and so he has nowhere to go. I’ve never longed for Ted to show up more.

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