After a short hiatus from the big screen, Matthew McConaughey re-emerged last year, playing quirkier roles in much better movies.
Texas actor Matthew McConaughey’s personal motto is “Just keep livin’,” but, for a while there, the dude’s career just kept dyin’. He’d starred in a string of crummy rom-coms meant to capitalize on his dreamboat looks (The Wedding Planner, Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold). He’d been cast as the hero in a blockbuster action comedy, Sahara, which was supposed to start a franchise but instead failed to recoup its astronomical costs. And by 2008, he’d hit rock-bottom, playing the title role in the self-produced Surfer, Dude, a misbegotten stoner flick that achieved a big, fat “zero” rating from review-aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
Then, just when “failure to launch” was beginning to sound like an apt summary of his situation, McConaughey bounced back. After a short hiatus from the big screen, he re-emerged last year, playing quirkier roles in much better movies. He was a smugly crooked attorney in the legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyer and a brutally crooked cop in the trailer-trash nightmare Killer Joe. He was just this side of crooked as another lawyer, this one determined to put Jack Black’s lovable undertaker behind bars, in Richard Linklater’s mockumentary Bernie. And he flirted with self-parody as the studly club owner in Steven Soderbergh’s male strip-tease saga Magic Mike. The picture, though, that will really throw McConaughey fans for a loop is Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, opening this Friday. In this torrid, trashy crime drama, the actor once deemed by People to be the “Sexiest Man Alive” plays a masochistic gay journalist whose scarred face attests to his near-suicidal taste for rough trade.
To quote another catchphrase (Fred Willard’s in A Mighty Wind), “Wha’ happened?” As McConaughey explained in a New York Times profile back in July, he just got sick of the rom-com rut and began turning those parts down. “In a wild cyclical way,” he said, “I started to attract these other things.” The directors of those “other things,” meanwhile, seem to have recognized something in McConaughey that had never been fully exploited. Call it his capacity for sleaze.
McConaughey is correct to describe it as cyclical. After all, he first made his mark playing a sleazy charmer in Dazed and Confused, Linklater’s 1993 exercise in marijuana-fuelled 1970s nostalgia. As moustachioed stoner David Wooderson, McConaughey was the college-age guy who still hangs with the high-school crowd so he can indulge his taste for younger girls. (The character also gave McConaughey his motto. Wooderson imparts these boneheaded words of wisdom to the latest crop of high-school seniors: “You just gotta keep livin’, man. L-I-V-I-N.”)
McConaughey followed up with an all-out psycho turn in The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But after he attained stardom, with the first of his many lawyer roles in the 1996 film adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, he officially became a Hollywood hunk. He snagged that “Sexiest Man Alive” citation in 2005 and spent most of his screen time opposite leading ladies like Kate Hudson and Jennifer Lopez in those chemistry-free (albeit profitable) chick flicks.
Although McConaughey occasionally strayed into offbeat fare—such as Bill Paxton’s cult horror flick Frailty—Hollywood, perhaps blinded by those dreamy blue eyes, didn’t recognize that his real gift was for playing villains, rogues, and sleazebags. It took the auteurs behind his current winning streak—Daniels, Soderbergh, his old pal Linklater, and the legendary William Friedkin, who helmed Killer Joe—to bring out his dark and slippery side.
McConaughey’s career reboot is not unlike Bill Murray’s a decade ago, when directors Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Jim Jarmusch steered the SNL alum away from mainstream Ghostbusters-type comedy and into deeper, more interesting waters. They saw that, behind Murray’s goofiness, there was a melancholic strain waiting to be tapped.
The 42-year-old McConaughey’s comeback could also be the sign of a new maturity. It may be no coincidence that the weed-smoking, bongo-drumming dude of yore is a family man now. When not playing killers and strippers onscreen, he’s been playing daddy to a pair of tykes, and he and wife Camila Alves are expecting a third in the new year. Those of us who were ready to write McConaughey off as a joke, a real-life Wooderson, are starting to reconsider. But given the roles that have revitalized his career, maybe a new personal motto is in order. How about: Just keep sleazin’?