the workhorse

Why Mark Wahlberg Is the Perfect Mr. January

Photo: Maya Robinson

Lone Survivor, which hits theaters everywhere this weekend after a limited Oscar-qualifying run, gives Mark Wahlberg his third January in a row with a wide-release film, following 2012’s Contraband and 2013’s Broken City. This Wahlbergian release pattern makes sense: If there’s any calendar month of the year that feels like Mark Wahlberg, it is January — so much so that we can picture the month said with a blue-collar Boston accent. The unpretentious, workmanlike Wahlberg is Mr. January — sorry, Mistah Jahnuahry.

Yes, January is usually a dumping-ground for failed projects and the sort of unintellectual movies that dramatically contrast the higher-falutin Oscar-bait. If December is movie Christmas, January is the Island of Misfit Toys. And it has been for a while. As we found out in a piece last January, January 1989 had the lowest Rotten Tomatoes average of any month in the last 25 years. It’s maybe the most extreme example of counterprogramming, where Hollywood releases “bad” movies for those who don’t care to see the “good” movies that linger after Oscar-hopeful season. Some of these “bad” movies end up being quite watchable (Cloverfield, Haywire) and some are quite successful (Taken, Paul Blart: Mall Cop), but they carry the stigma of being a bit lesser-than in terms of budget, brains, or ambition. January is not for art; January is when Hollywood just does its job. 

And Mark Wahlberg perfectly encapsulates that. It’s not that Mark Wahlberg is a bad actor. He’s actually quite solid, if not exceptional at times — namely, times when he’s playing a Bostonian and/or Mark Wahlberg types (“Sure, I enjoy playing just a straightforward guys’ guy,” he told the Guardian. “I think that’s what people expect and that’s what people enjoy seeing me do”). His output was enough for New York Times Magazine to ask if he’s “the greatest actor of his generation.” Mark Wahlberg is a great actor, but he has none of his peers’ aspirations to be a “great actor.” He doesn’t have the pretension, inflated self-worth, or weirdness of someone like Leonardo DiCaprio. He’ll happily take a backseat in movies, whether it is to Christian Bale, Will Ferrell, or a talking bear. It’s also partly because the whole idea of capital-A Acting bores him. Remember how angry he got at actors who compare making movies to war? Or take this exchange from the Guardian: “The science of acting seems to leave him cold. ‘Ooh,’ he says, affecting the voice of a prissy, self-obsessed thespian. ‘Ooh, let me think about my dead cat. Let me think about the colour blue. Let me go into that little place in my room where I used to hide when I was seven.’ He pulls a face. ‘It might work for some people but that’s not for me, dude, I have a different set of tools.’”

Similarly, when the Telegraph asked if he’d ever pull a Daniel Day-Lewis and fully immerse himself in a role for an extended period of time, Wahlberg respectfully and quickly said, “No. I have way too much hustle in me. I’m too business-minded and entrepreneurial. I’m a grinder.” Acting is Mark Wahlberg’s job. A job he enjoys, but, like any grinder, one he looks forward to retiring from, telling Men’s Health he can’t imagine acting past 50. Classic Mr. January.

Of course, it’s not like his January movies have been huge hits; Contraband brought in a solid $66.5 million, while Broken City bombed with $19.7 million. And of course, Lone Survivor is a different type of movie than Broken City and Contraband; although they are all low budget (Wahlberg loves bragging about how he keeps the budget down on movies he produces), big-studio, action-focused movies that tend to be a bit more serious than your standard summer fare, Lone Survivor actually was made with some awards aspirations (though that most likely came from director Peter Berg). Yet that’s beside the point, because it’s all the same to Wahlberg.

Wahlberg, who has worked with Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell (three times), and Martin Scorsese, is hard to pin down to the classic one-for-them-one-for-me model of movie stardom. He told GQ that he used the success of starring in and producing The Fighter, which on paper seems like a one-for-me, to get Broken City and Contraband made, which would for many actors (like a Ben Affleck) also be considered a one-for-them. Some of it has to do with the fact that Wahlberg likes those sort of movies — he is a guy who turned down Star Trek because he “couldn’t understand” it and in a recent New York profile called Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain a cross between “Boogie Nights and Pulp Fiction and Fargo.” But more so, Wahlberg just wants to work and do a good job, telling Men’s Health, “There’s no limit to how hard I’m willing to work to succeed at what I do and to be the best that I can be. The people who hire me, they put their faith behind me. I work as hard as anybody will ever work and I like that. That’s why I’ve been successful and that is when I feel good about myself.” He’s a guy who talks about being “productive” like other actors talk about being creative.

And that’s what truly sets him apart: a lack of cynicism. Where other January movie stars — your Gerard Butlers, your Aaron Eckharts — feel like they’re phoning it in, wishing they were somewhere else, you never get that feeling from Wahlberg. Wahlberg gives his all, regardless of the project, and that’s why he’s able to do these movies and then still work with David O. Russell. For how famously annoying movie stars can be, it’s not surprising everyone wants to cast a guy who just works hard.

This industriousness makes him perfect for January. Unlike the summer, where movies are touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread, when they’re actually as entertaining as watching bread being sliced (Wahlberg on why The Lone Ranger flopped: “They are spending so much money to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes with these effects-driven movies”), January movies come out humbly and without pomp. At their best, January movies symbolize that everyone in Hollywood is trying their darndest, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. The blue-collar Mark Wahlberg is the perfect face for that ethos. He’s ultimately a guy who would work just as hard whether he was starring in the Oscar-winning Argo or the fake shitty movie Argo that Affleck’s CIA used in that operation.

Wahlberg is as busy as ever, which is a good thing, because he hypothetically only has eight years of acting left. There’s Transformers: Age of Extinction and Ted 2, both of which will likely be giant summer hits (in 2014 and 2015, respectively). There’s the Jonah Hill-costarring action comedy Good Time Gang that seems promising, though it hasn’t really made much headway since it was first announced in 2011. And there’s The Gambler, a Rupert Wyatt remake of the 1974 James Caan action drama about a New York City professor who falls into trouble after accruing a great deal of gambling debts. That last one might end up being great and winning Wahlberg an Academy Award on his third try — but if it doesn’t, there’s a span of four weeks that would love to have it. Either way, Wahlberg will show up to set on time.

Why Mark Wahlberg Is the Perfect Mr. January