Defending Junk II: Matthew McConaughey

Lately it’s become a popular pastime to knock Matthew McConaughey. At least one website exists for McConaughey jokes (although in fairness, there are only nine and some aren’t very funny) and Family Guy can’t go very long with slipping some dig in and why not? When your resume is littered with as much crap as his is, you’re ripe for the pickings.

But there was a time when he was a man on the come, when he was a man with a future, a man with enough talent and charisma to work his way out of playing one of the Klan members in A Time to Kill – a role eventually relegated to Keifer Sutherland – to suddenly playing the lead opposite Sandra Bullock.

Since 1997, though, it’s been mostly downhill, flitting from The Wedding Planner to How to Lose A Guy in Ten Days to Failure to Launch to Fools Gold to Ghosts of Girlfriends Past to the piece de resistance, Surfer, Dude, which boasts a total domestic gross of less than $60,000.  Others might slum in these movies for a quick buck, but these have become the McConaughey metier.

But after catching the overlooked gem Reign of Fire on SyiFy recently it is clear that, even though he’s insisted on career immolation, McConaughey is capable of being a star. Or at least an actor worth watching. However, to make good on this promise he’s gotta have the good sense to get out of his own way and do the right films and maybe this means firing an agent or letting a monkey pick his roles for a change – or better, somebody like me – but whatever it is, he needs to change.

I will note that, rather than do a straightforward defense of the McConaughey oeuvre, as has been done in previous ‘Defending Junk’ posts, it might be better to consider the highlights of his resume in an effort to point out the paths he should be following. And if McConaughey plays his cards right he just might be the second star of A Time To Kill in recent years to tread across the Oscar stage as more than just a presenter.

1. More Wild-Eyed Crazy

In Tropic Thunder audiences saw a side of McConaughey most had never seen before. As the agent for Ben Stiller he wasn’t exactly charming as over-the-top-bananas and even if the role bordered almost on self-parody he’s also probably never been funnier. And in a movie littered with extreme performances, that he could stand out and thrive and genuinely make us laugh is quite an achievement.

But his role in Tropic Thunder was hardly the first time he’d tread that path. In the already-mentioned Reign of Fire he fired up the same lunacy and even if it didn’t quite connect with audiences – despite starring a pre-Batman Christian Bale and a pre-300 Gerard Butler – that hardly means it’s a lousy movie. In fact, in almost every other way it’s a success, featuring not only a future-Britain overrun by dragons, but a bald, bearded, strutting McConaughey in a go for broke performance so great it has to be seen to be believed.

2. More Supporting Roles

Some of McConaughey most memorable films are those where he is not front and center, but where he lets somebody else do the heavy-lifting while he provides the local color. Consider the first two films mentioned. In Tropic Thunder he isn’t asked to carry the weight of the film and he really shines and he basically walks away with Reign of Fire, stealing it right out from under Christian Bale.

Two other examples – and two wildly different roles – are his turns in the under-seen Bill Paxton directed film, Frailty and the sublime Dazed and Confused. In the first, playing the son of a man tasked by god to kill demons he goes from sympathetic to menacing without even having to raise his voice or flash a smile or his abs or even do hardly anything at all. It’s simply masterful. In the second, in what is really his iconic role, he plays aging stoner/slacker Wooderson, still hanging around high school kids girls because, as he says, “I get older, they stay the same age.” While much of the credit goes to the writing of the script, one can’t overlook the fact that in another actor’s hands the role could easily have been buffoonish and cloying and downright disturbding, instead of absolutely delightful.

3. More Hero Roles

When you hear the word ‘hero’ the temptation is to think in terms of the ‘I’m the star of this film so that makes me the hero’ kind of way. No, what is meant here is the type of hero in the Alvin York or Will Kane mold – basically, the role Gary Cooper made his own – playing men driven by their consciences to do the right thing when the wrong thing is far easier and isn’t likely to get them killed.

For McConaughey this means more films like U-571. In it he plays a man passed over for command of a submarine because he refuses to make the tough decisions but who, through happenstance, is forced to take command and make the tough decision between picking one of his men to endure certain death so that the rest may survive. Showing all the range you would expect from more well-respected actors, McConaughey basically hits one out of the park, proving that, if he bothered to search out these kind of roles more often, he might not be the joke he’s become.

4. More John Sayles

He’s only done one film with John Sayles, the man behind any number of good movies and a genius at working both sides of the ‘one for me, one for them’ street, but even so, given Sayles’ reputation it shouldn’t come as any surprised that the most complicated character McConaughey ever played was for John Sayles, who gave lots of people lots of good parts. One suspects his participation in Lone Star was because he was still a man on the way up and looking for parts and that if the script had crossed his desk today, when he doesn’t need Sayles, he would have passed. But given that Sayles provided him with the most complicated and subtle role of his career that maybe it’s time McConaughey bent over backwards – work for free or even pay for the movie if he has to – just to work together on a more regular basis.

5. No More Romantic Comedies Or Movies Where The Main Bit Of Character Development Involves Taking Off A Shirt.

Face it, McConaughey, you’re charming. You have great abs and a good smile and when they showed your clip in the Barbara Walters Oscar night special, my wife drooled all over herself. Even so, charm and a smile and good abs only go so far. Look at me, I have a rockin’ set of abs, a good smile and charm galore (seriously, look at that picture to your left and if you just swap my head for his we would be twins) and all I got is this blog. But it’s no real talent to take off your shirt and do a million scrunches and while people like to look at pretty things this can get boring pretty quick. It’s probably why after How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days did well, every film you did after that which was ‘romantic’ or featured you abs practically went belly-up, including the financially-ruinous Sahara, which everybody, and I mean everybody – except maybe me – hated.

These are a few simple suggestions, humble suggestions from somebody in the seats, but given that the status quo for you has practically turned you into a joke, maybe they aren’t ones you should discount out of hand.

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