For much of the past decade, it’s been easy to forget that Matthew McConaughey was once heralded as the Paul Newman of his generation. Even before establishing his box-office bona fides as a leading man in high-profile fare like A Time To Kill, Amistad, and Contact, he had the glamour, charisma, and dashing good looks of an old-school matinee idol, and comic chops that allowed him to steal Larger Than Life from Bill Murray and transform a tiny supporting role in the crowded ensemble comedy Dazed And Confused into an unlikely pop-culture icon. But for much of the past decade, it’s been easy to forget that McConaughey was an actor at all, thanks to his roles in increasingly irrelevant movies where his part invariably seemed to begin and end with showing up, smiling pretty, taking off his shirt under the flimsiest of pretenses, then waiting around for fat royalty checks to roll in when his innocuous romantic comedies were rerun on basic cable ad infinitum.
Somewhere along the line, McConaughey stopped being an actor and became a joke. We stopped laughing with him and started laughing at him. It’s easy to chart his devolution, which began—dramatically and hilariously—with his 1999 arrest for disturbing the peace and marijuana possession after playing the bongos while stoned and naked at his home. That image of McConaughey—high, nude, unencumbered by clothes, dignity, or sobriety—was burned so indelibly into the public imagination that it was hard to think of McConaughey as anything but a naked bongo-playing stoner. The circumstances of his arrest were so goofy, weirdly sexual, and endearing that they altered the way McConaughey was perceived, both by audiences and the industry.
McConaughey’s descent into self-caricature continued when People named him its Sexiest Man Alive in 2005, an honor that only cemented perception of him as a bongo-playing goofball first and an actor a distant second. 2008’s ridiculous vanity project Surfer, Dude (whose “Love and waves, that’s what we need in these dark days” tagline says everything that needs to be said about the film’s softheaded stoner philosophizing) completed McConaughey’s tumble. McConaughey has always been fun to look at, watch, and imitate—but now the world was having fun at his expense.
McConaughey’s best days appeared to be behind him. He was still a consistent draw as a romantic leading man in dreck like How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, The Wedding Planner, and Failure To Launch, but it became difficult, if not impossible, to take him seriously. Easygoing charm had always been a huge part of his persona, but there’s a difference between effortlessness and apathy. Throughout the last decade, McConaughey seemed intent on coasting on his looks and charm. It all seemed too easy; he seemingly sought out roles—or given the slacker Zen nature of his life, roles fell into his lap—where he didn’t really have to try, where he was never asked to be anything other than slick and handsome. He seemed intent on sleepwalking through a charmed life.
Over the past few years, however, he’s engineered a remarkable comeback and re-energized his career by working with important filmmakers with strong personalities and clear points of view, purposefully eschewing the big paychecks and low-hanging fruit of successful but soul-crushing romantic comedies, embracing his inner character actor and Southern roots, and choosing roles that tweak, twist, and comment on his well-defined persona in subversive and insightful ways.
McConaughey’s comeback began quietly when he stepped in for pal Owen Wilson with an assured comic turn as Ben Stiller’s laconic agent in Tropic Thunder, and continued when he signed on to Eastbound & Down for a recurring guest role as the gay major-league scout who becomes Kenny Powers’ ticket to the big time. On Eastbound & Down, McConaughey builds a lived-in character out of small but telling details, like the granny glasses that hang off the end of his nose, an eagerness to invade Powers’ personal space, and a winking but ever-present undercurrent of seduction that colors their every encounter. Danny McBride as Powers is so outrageous, he has a tendency to make everyone play against him. But on Eastbound & Down, he reacts to McConaughey: his aggressive sexuality, his honeyed words, his uncomfortable intensity and lascivious gaze. McConaughey dominates their scenes together, no mean feat for someone acting opposite McBride in his signature role.
It’s been said that movie stars play some variation on themselves, or at least their screen personas, in every movie. The most beloved stars—think Katharine Hepburn or Cary Grant—have personalities big and appealing enough to make that an attractive proposition. McConaughey is a true movie star in the best and worst sense. He easily could spend the rest of his career playing minor variations on himself, but on Eastbound & Down, he delights in playing a quintessential comic character part. In his romantic comedies and slick dramas, McConaughey constantly flashes a smile because that’s what handsome movie stars do, but on Eastbound & Down, his shit-eating grin has a different, more compelling connotation. His character smiles because he clearly loves what he’s doing and boasts an unseemly joy in being in Kenny Powers’ presence, something that seems to weird out even an egotist like Powers. While the performances of McConaughey’s creatively lean years betrayed a certain detachment—no use investing your whole soul in the likes of Sahara or the aptly titled Fool’s Gold—his recent performances benefit from complete conviction.
In 2011, McConaughey reunited with his Dazed And Confused and Newton Boys director and fellow Texan Richard Linklater for his based-on-real-life film Bernie, playing a slick lawyer burdened with having to prosecute a mortician (Jack Black) so beloved in his Texas hometown that no one wants to hold him responsible for killing a rich old woman (Shirley MacLaine) even after he confesses to the murder. His character is equal parts politician and ham actor, a smoothie with big aspirations. In a standout scene, McConaughey adopts a cynical but extremely successful pose of folksy small-town obliviousness to posit Black’s accused murderer as an exemplar of big-city snobbishness by mispronouncing the title of Les Misérables and waiting for Black to respond. A canny student of human psychology and small-town prejudices, he adopts an aw-shucks, George W. Bush-esque populist persona in order to make Black’s cultured, murderous good Samaritan look like a George H.W. Bush-esque snob by comparison.
McConaughey plays a starkly different kind of Texas lawman in Killer Joe, William Friedkin’s bleakly funny adaptation of Tracey Letts’ vicious black comedy. Within the scuzzy, low-rent trailer-park hell of Killer Joe, McConaughey’s detective/hitman initially comes off as a civilizing figure. Everything about him is methodical and precise: his language, his wardrobe, his body language. He puts great care into how he presents himself in a seedy little world where most folks care only about scraping by. Killer Joe twists and contorts the courtly charm at the core of McConaughey’s persona to thrilling, dark ends. His megawatt smile becomes unnerving and sinister when it’s employed to seduce a mentally ill trailer-park denizen (Juno Temple) her family has essentially pimped out to McConaughey as a sexual “retainer.”
The gleeful transgression, sickeningly visceral violence, twisted sexuality, and general depravity of McConaughey’s Killer Joe performance wouldn’t have the same subversive power if McConaughey’s comedies hadn’t portrayed him as such a safe, sanitized figure of romantic fantasy, a real-life Ken doll or Marlboro Man. The charm McConaughey perfected in fluff makes his character’s sinister machinations a little more palatable—if Temple is going to be pimped out to a sadistic, perverse killer and predator, she seemingly could do a whole lot worse than a man who looks and talks like McConaughey—until the film’s gut-punch climax betrays the true depths of his character’s depravity.
After the claustrophobic intensity of Killer Joe, McConaughey’s turn as a male strip-club impresario in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike can’t help but come off as a welcome breather. In Magic Mike, McConaughey plays an elder statesman of male sexiness, a small-timer with a massive ego and a genius for infecting the people around him with his big dreams. Magic Mike is never more fun or alive then when McConaughey is center stage playing loving den mother and hype-man to his coterie of buff strippers. Without the chest-beating theatricality and infectious enthusiasm of McConaughey’s joyful performance and some supremely silly stripping setpieces, Magic Mike’s depiction of lost souls in recession-strapped Tampa might easily register as unbearably grim. McConaughey’s alpha-male showmanship single-handedly makes a seedy, sad milieu ooze glamour and excitement.
The performance also doubles as meta-commentary on his rocky career path, riffing on his public persona as the sexiest stoner alive and even affording him an opportunity to play the bongos on camera. McConaughey’s narcissistic character takes pride in his beauty and status as the man behind the “Cock-rocking kings of Tampa” (a title that becomes sadder and sadder the more you think about it) but underneath his tongue-in-cheek bravado lies the disquieting truth that beauty, like youth, fades. Magic Mike takes McConaughey’s sexpot persona as far as it can go while imbuing it with an unmistakable undercurrent of melancholy. It offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of coasting too hard on looks and charm, of letting the swagger of youth linger on to the point where it becomes desperate and sad. Thankfully, McConaughey seems to have heeded his own film’s warning.