I think the thing that makes Mark Wahlberg a movie star, straight-up, is not a matter of looks or line delivery - it’s mystery. Is he a genius? Is he smart? Is he stupid? How can he basically play the same character, amazingly, in The Departed and The Other Guys? How is Dirk Digger from Boogie Nights basically related to those guys? Why does he seem like he has no sense of humor at all, even though he’s very funny?
I think the easy answer is to see him as a holy fool, lucking into success in the business, but it’s way too reductive considering that when he’s in good movies, they’re amazing, and he’s a fairly successful producer. (The weird details of his real life - the rap career, time in juvie for blinding a man in a hate crime - let’s forget about it for now. Dude has some darkness, is probably more Catholic now, I imagine a lot of asking for forgiveness and holy retribution, he does a lot of charity boys and girls clubs work in Dorchester, some writer somewhere has to steal the details for a Horatio Alger story. I hope he’s given some money that man’s family. I wonder.)
As an actor, he has this magical ability to play dumb so sincerely that you think oh, he must be dumb, there’s no wink at the camera reassuring us that he’s smart. I suspect he’s got that kind of Boston-ish sense of humor where he’s very good at busting someone’s chops (see: Dignam, The Departed), but I’m not sure whether it’s a winking, ironic sense of humor. I think that’s what Mark Wahlberg is, above all, and what makes him likable and rootable: he’s earnest. It’s why he’s a great match for Will Ferrell in The Other Guys because you believe them both so completely.
He’s amazing in Boogie Nights. I forgot that movie is hilarious, a warning about how coke is a terrible drug, and sort of a mix of montages and set-pieces, cut in a way that it feels oh-so-fast even though it’s a fairly long movie. Whereas Paul Thomas Anderson’s sold-as-“funny” Punch Drunk Love felt like the saddest movie in the world when I saw it in the theaters opening night. The kids behind me laughed at every Adam Sandler line and I was about to cry, this character just had so much pain and anger and people were so cruel and it crushed me.
Boogie Nights, though: it’s the root of so many things, while also being a compendium of all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film-nerd admirations and tributes. But I laughed really, really hard when I realized that “Mac” on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is basically a tribute to Dirk Diggler, down to the love of karate chops. Because Mark Wahlberg is a little bit of a comic genius.