Mark Wahlberg in 'Transformers' is the best bad performance of the year

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So maybe we all can just agree to disagree about Transformers. The critical establishment collectively agreed to give Michael Bay the benefit of the doubt with 2011′s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which earned semi-decent reviews mainly because it was less obnoxiously worse than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. But Trans4mers led that same critical establishment into hilarious paroxysms of scathing invective. (EW‘s own Chris Nashawaty called it “numbing, exhausting, and migraine-inducing.”) Predictably, the movie made $100 million over the weekend.

Bad movies have made a lot of money since forever. There’s a generation of young-dude moviegoers who have been raised on Transformers and probably love it—a situation which we can only resolve by doing a better job of training the next generation to enjoy movies about actual human beings. And in fairness, there’s an argument to be made for Michael Bay’s incoherent beer-commercial dude-fascism. It’s possible that future generations will revere him as a genius, sort of like how those skinless mutants in Beneath the Planet of the Apes made a god out of an atomic bomb.

But I don’t want to talk about Michael Bay, or about the Transformers. I want to talk about Mark Wahlberg, who is the absolute best thing about Transformers: Age of Extinction. It’s not quite accurate to say that Wahlberg rises above the material. It’s more like Wahlberg meets the material head-on, giving his full commitment to a ridiculous character set adrift in an undercooked plot. You know the moment in Ed Wood, when Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi has to pretend that a nonfunctional octopus robot is eating him, and Lugosi has to scream an endless death scream while also moving the octopus’ arms around him? That’s Wahlberg in Trans4mers, bringing the big dumb automaton to life by sheer virtue of over-the-top silliness.

Wahlberg plays Cade Yeager, a man who… I’m sorry, Cade Yeager? Say that three times: Cade Yeager, Cade Yeager, Cade Yeager. A surname that pays explicit homage to one of the greats of the Jet Age, a first name that pays homage to the snottiest kid in your local grade school. It’s a name that sounds field-tested by three different PR firms who were given marching orders to come up with the most unlikely-but-vaguely-”hip” name for a protagonist. “Cade Yeager” sounds like an astronaut with a skateboard. “Cade Yeager” sounds like a thesaurus.

In point of fact, Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager is an inventor. We know this because in the greatest moment in this horrible movie, Wahlberg screams: “I’m an inventor!” We also know this because Cade wears glasses. I should stress that Cade also wears what you can only describe as a movie star uniform: Tight t-shirts and fitted Henleys, perfect running jeans. There’s a scene in an abandoned train when Wahlberg has a heart-to-heart conversation with the film’s young protagonist Jack Reynor, and I kid you not, Wahlberg and Reynor are wearing the exact same clothes.

But the brazen inauthenticity of Wahlberg’s character goes down to the very foundation. Yeager is a Texan, and Wahlberg makes no attempt whatsoever to make him sound Texan, even when he’s saying things like “You know, we got a rule about messing with people from Texas.” Yeager is initially presented as a small-town, go-nowhere loser, but in the span of three hours, he plots an elaborate heist against the biggest tech firm on the planet and becomes an ace sharpshooter capable of taking down giant alien robots. It literally feels as if Wahlberg’s other performances invade this performance–it’s like watching him transition from I Heart Huckabees to The Italian Job to Shooter.

What makes this all even better is that Wahlberg’s character isn’t just John Q. Everyman; he’s held up as the proof, the absolute defining example, of how great humanity can be. At one point, Wahlberg calls up the heretofore-villainous Stanley Tucci on the phone. In an attempt to appeal to Tucci’s inner goodness, Wahlberg says: “I know you have a conscience! Because you’re an inventor, like me!” And it works. Through sheer force of oratory, Wahlberg flips Tucci’s character switch from “Evil” to “Good.” This is all so, so silly, and the rest of the movie is so, so stupid, and yet every time Wahlberg came onscreen to say something absolutely ridiculous, Age of Extinction lights up.

Historically, there are two kinds of Wahlberg performances. There are the films where Wahlberg plays a lovable, charming, excitably dumb neophyte: Boogie NightsThe Big HitThree KingsI Heart Huckabees. And there are the films where Wahlberg plays a charmless, unsmiling, granite-faced badass: Planet of the ApesThe Truth About CharlieFour BrothersMax Payne. There are good and bad versions of each performance. (Wahlberg earned an Oscar nomination for one of the latter, The Departed.) What sets the two performances apart, I think, is a perceived commitment.

When Wahlberg goes serious, he looks a bit bored; when he goes funny, he’s hyperkinetic, improvvy, like he can barely restrain himself. But the binary opposition of those two performances is a central part of Wahlberg’s star persona: The fact that you can never quite take Serious Wahlberg “seriously,” the fact that Funny Wahlberg is only funny because he seems to take the material so seriously.

To see what I mean, consider this deleted scene from The Happening, one of the most committed performances Wahlberg has ever given. Keep an eye on that cereal box.

This scene is written and shot horribly; it’s actually worse than the rest of The Happening. But everything Wahlberg does is mesmerizing. The comment about rocky road ice cream. The moment at the 3:19 mark when, apropos of absolutely nothing, he reaches into the cereal box: “Mood ring. Remember?” The cereal box! You can tell that Shyamalan is going for some sort of casual-melodrama vibe, but there’s nothing casual about Wahlberg. He doesn’t just hold a cereal box; he actually seems to wield it as a weapon.

Somewhere around The Happening, we as a culture reached what we might term Wahlberg Singularity. Besides that hilariously god-awful crapsterpiece, 2008 was also the year that there were two HBO shows produced by Mark Wahlberg. (Entourage and In TreatmentBoardwalk Empire and How to Make it in America followed.) And 2008 was the year that Andy Samberg debuted “Mark Wahlberg Talks to the Animals.” The actor’s two reactions to that skit define the essence of Wahlberg: He was furious, and then he played along.

Is it possible that an SNL skit changed Wahlberg’s career? He started doing more comedies–and part of what makes his roles in Date Night and The Other Guys so funny is how they feel like tongue-in-cheek deconstructions of Wahlberg’s serious work. Wahlberg can still deliver turgid-frowns (see: Broken City), but in last summer’s minor gem 2 Guns he was willing to play the goofus to Denzel Washington’s gallant.

What makes Wahlberg fascinating is how he seems to take everything so seriously–witness him going far down the rabbit hole with Lone Survivor–and what makes him so splendid in Trans4mers is that he seems to believe in the movie more than anyone else.

Everything else about the franchise is aggressively bad—the nonstop explosive visuals, the nonstop nonsense exposition, the nonstop legs—and so, by comparison, Wahlberg’s mere campiness vibes profound. He’s a Boston-accented Texan, a biceppy inventor who wears nerd glasses when he’s not wearing action-hero clothes, the single father of a supermodel, a man who frequently has heart-to-heart conversations about the nature of humanity with a giant digital alien robot. “You gotta have faith, Prime. Maybe not in who we are, but who we can be.”

Keep whispering fully-committed sweet nothings in our ear, Mark Wahlberg, and perhaps someday our faith will be restored.

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