The Netflix series The Kominsky Method, starring Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, is not a show anyone in my social circle watches. I’ve never really given any thought to getting into it, even though “a half-hour show featuring two old men just gabbing” is the bullseye on the dartboard of things I would theoretically like. (Pobody’s nerfect.) In fact, the only time I’ve given it any thought, outside of its consistent presence at the Golden Globes, was while watching the new Netflix movie Spenser Confidential, which reunites director Peter Berg with star Mark Wahlberg, and co-stars Arkin as an old man whose sole character trait is “inept with technology.” As Berg and Wahlberg (perfect partners, even in name) ascended inexorably toward a parodic level of Bostonian-ness in Spenser Confidential, I wondered if I wouldn’t be having a better time just getting a more concentrated dose of Arkin in The Kominsky Method.
Spenser Confidential begins with Wahlberg, as Spenser, landing in jail after beating up his police captain (Michael Gaston). Sure, he was trying to figure out why his captain was covering up a murder, but nobody but Spenser cares about that. The same holds true when he gets out of jail five years later (after a send-off prison brawl with Post Malone). Though Spenser initially plans to get the hell out of Boston and live out the rest of his life in peace, a movie about Mark Wahlberg leaving Boston for a quiet suburban life would never get made. When his old captain is murdered, and it becomes clear that the series of events that landed him in jail is hardly over, he takes matters into his own hands.
That’s where Arkin comes in, alongside Winston Duke, the one thing Spenser Confidential has going for it over The Kominsky Method. Arkin plays Henry, Spenser’s old boxing coach, who offers him a place to stay post-prison. Duke plays Hawk, Spenser’s new roommate, and eventually his new sidekick. Arkin’s “I don’t understand how to use FaceTime” schtick is hardly a new thing in cinema, but he has enough charisma to make that kind of bumbling at least a little fun. (See: a scene where he chats the ear off a baddie who’s taken him hostage. Or, to pull from a different movie, his inexplicable role in Tim Burton’s Dumbo.) And Duke has already proven — in Black Panther, in Us, in the upcoming Sony Pictures Classics supernatural drama Nine Days — that there’s no scene he can’t steal.
Wahlberg, by contrast, isn’t such an adaptable performer. He can achieve greatness with the right kind of role (usually aggressive types, as in The Departed or Pain and Gain), or by lampooning that image (The Other Guys), or with the right director (Boogie Nights). But without that kind of strong backbone, he tends to flounder. And his performance in Spenser Confidential amounts to a Saturday Night Live impression of himself, rather than a compelling character.
The faint skeleton of something that could have elevated his performance is noticeable in Spenser Confidential, as it occasionally pokes fun at the tropes usually present in similar wildcard-cop stories. When Spenser decides he’s the only one who can really dole out justice, we see it happen in a slow zoom on Wahlberg as his expression grows increasingly grim, while Arkin’s offscreen voice futilely begs him not to give into the impulse. In a bind with a few toughs, Spenser resorts to showing off pictures of his aging dog to make conversation. Later on, as characters go off for a lobster dinner, the word “LOBSTAH” appears onscreen like a title card. Though every scene poking fun at Wahlberg’s super-macho image is balanced by one where he kicks the asses of everyone around him, Berg still isn’t taking Spenser Confidential too seriously.
That doesn’t excuse just how thin some of the rest of the movie feels, however, particularly Iliza Shlesinger’s role as Spenser’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. Shlesinger does her best, but the role is stereotypically shrill; she constantly yells at all the male characters, and can’t resist taking Spenser back into her life, even though he seems like a terrible boyfriend. Henry and Hawk only fare better by virtue of being stock characters (the mentor, the up-and-comer) without similar baggage.
Spenser Confidential’s bad and predictable aspects end up outweighing what feels fun about it. And like the title, the movie only really makes room for one character, so the bright spots of Arkin and Duke are vastly overshadowed by the film’s focus on Spenser. Wahlberg can be great, but this isn’t the vehicle to get him there. It’s difficult not to wonder, then, if it’d be better to find the things that are great about Spenser Confidential elsewhere, in better projects. The Kominsky Method and Black Panther are just clicks away.
Spenser Confidential is streaming on Netflix now.