Throughout his career, Mark Wahlberg rarely chooses to appear small on screen. As a movie star for the best part of three decades, his trademark has been portraying the tough guy. This is reflected in many of the roles he has taken correlating to this machismo-heavy persona. The bulk of his filmography is studio action pictures, often collaborating with either Peter Berg, Michael Bay, or Antoine Fuqua. And while he does his fair share of comedies, many are light riffs on the bruiser type he portrays in said action films. By and large, Wahlberg's career has been shaped by a perceived desire to stay where he's comfortable and not get overly vulnerable. That said, his latest project, 'Joe Bell', stands out as a major anomaly.
Wahlberg portrays the titular Joe Bell, a blue-collar father struggling to comprehend what his 15-year-old gay son Jadin (Reid Miller) has endured. Jadin has long been in the crosshairs of homophobic bullies, and Joe's previous insensitivity to the situation has done little to help. Knowing he must make a difference, Joe decides to walk from Oregon to New York to speak out against bullying. But while Joe quickly becomes a local celebrity for his efforts, he still carries a heavy burden. As he travels across the nation, Joe needs to wrestle with his past attitudes and how it has impacted his family.
There's no question that 'Joe Bell' has its heart in the right place. There is never a wrong time to shine a light on an issue as prevalent as intolerance. The film is based on the true story of Joe and Jadin Bell, and you can see the filmmakers are committed to honouring these men to the best of their abilities. It's also admirable that Wahlberg, who also operates as one of the film's producers, chose to utilise his standing in the industry to get this film off the ground. But while 'Joe Bell' exudes good intentions, the end result sadly leaves a lot to be desired.
The screenplay, penned by 'Brokeback Mountain' pair Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry, can never evoke the power of its fact-based story. In fact, a good percentage of the choices taken tend to elicit something far worse, creating a mawkish drama bereft of any momentum. 'Joe Bell' tells its story in a non-linear structure, and it ultimately rids the film of any rhythm. Considering this is a tale about changing outlooks, it's quite jarring to see Joe jump between catharsis one moment and thoughtlessness the next. Another sticking point is how the film elects to involve Jadin in the story. Without delving into spoilers, if you've seen enough films, you can quickly discern how he is actually present. For the most part, 'Joe Bell' falls victim to its own formulaic choices.
Nuance is few and far between in 'Joe Bell', and despite its sincere spirit, it cannot make up for its limited depth.
It also plays things frustratingly safe, despite its potent subject matter. A story like this has all the hallmarks of an insightful look at the impact of bigotry and the necessity to be better. However, the film isn't able to explore its themes with much dexterity. It never delves as deep as it could with the ideas it sets up. The film portrays Joe as a flawed individual, but it doesn't lean into his inherent contradictions and complexities nearly as much as it could. Additionally, a lot of big story points just tend to happen with barely any build-up. Nuance is few and far between in 'Joe Bell', and despite its sincere spirit, it cannot make up for its limited depth.
In terms of performance, things do fare better. These characters don't feel particularly lived in, but the cast is able to create something human. Reid Miller as Jadin is the standout. His energy is often infectious, and he does well conveying the weight of Jadin's predicament. Mark Wahlberg is committed as Joe, and he does fit in well as the father who has to come to grips with his previously myopic views. That said, for a film that condemns prejudice, it is somewhat uncomfortable seeing Wahlberg in this role, considering his real-life history. But be that as it may, the cast does offer some stirring work even with thin material at their disposal.
While the story can be sporadically moving, 'Joe Bell' is a disappointing endeavour. All the pieces are in place, but they never click the way they should. The impact of its message is fairly limp, with the filmmakers often opting for contrived and maudlin options. In the pantheon of 21st century LGBTQIA+ cinema, 'Joe Bell' can't hold a candle to an array of more thoughtful pieces. I hope Wahlberg continues to use his influence to get stories like this made over more shoot-em-up blockbusters or buddy comedies. But, ultimately, the crusade to tell Joe Bell's story must go down as a missed opportunity.