Matthew McConaughey and the Perils of Male Beauty

Matthew McConaughey and the Perils of Male Beauty

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Over the weekend I caught up with 2005's Two For The Money, a terrible, terrible movie I enjoyed tremendously. Though based on a true story, it plays like an unintentional parody of Tom Cruise movies where the world's craziest Scientologist (that's really saying something) plays a slick, arrogant young dude who's insanely gifted at something (flying, mixing drinks, racing cars, agenting, businessy type stuff, being a secret agent, football) learns humility and valuable life lessons at the hand of a mentor/father figure and finds love with a strong, sexy woman who sees behind the cocky façade to the wounded little boy underneath.

In Two For The Money the Tom Cruise figure is a former college football stud played by Matthew McConaughey, his super-power is being really good at picking the winners in football games (until he becomes very bad at picking the winners in football games) and the mentor/father figure is played by Al Pacino in full-on "Hoo-Ah, look at me acting! There's a great thespian at work here!" mode.

It's gorgeous to look at, spectacularly dumb, wildly over-the-top and filled with hilariously thin excuses to separate McConaughey from his shirt. For example, the film expresses McConaughey's growing disenchantment with Pacino and the shadowy world of high-stakes betting by having him strip down and do a whole bunch of push-ups.

By this point I don't really expect much from McConaughey. He seems to have resigned himself to a lucrative if mildly soul-crushing career of taking off his shirt and smiling seductively at an endless procession of leading ladies. Which is a shame, since McConaughey showed enormous promise in his early roles and a refreshing willingness to take risks and work with offbeat, interesting directors, like Richard Linklater (Dazed & Confused and The Newton Boys), John Sayles (Lone Star) and Bill Paxton (Frailty). Heck, he gets a lifetime pass for me just for his unforgettable mustached, jailbait-hungry sleazebag in Dazed And Confused alone.

Early in his career, McConaughey was pegged as the next Paul Newman: a pretty boy with serious acting chops. But somewhere along the way the promising young actor component of McConaughey's persona was usurped by his dreamboat image as The World's Sexiest Man. To paraphrase Louis B. Mayer's famous take on Esther Williams: shirtless, McConaughey is a star. Fully clothed he's just another handsome, pretty good actor in a town and industry full of them.

McConaughey seems to have undergone the male version of "hoification", the process by which foxy young actresses/singers say to the world "Stop judging me by the quality of my work and judge me by the quality of the work I've had done to my body." Except in McConaughey's case, he's saying, "I'm not just an actor, dammit, I'm also a luscious slab of prime-quality man-meat. Don't you ever forget that! Now watch me do fifty pull-ups."

The McConaughey films I've watched over the past five years aren't even trying to be good. Failure To Launch and Fool's Gold are proudly idiotic fluff, aggressively superficial mediocrity. They exist to do nothing more than fill the coffers of studios with the dirty lucre of people who like to look at McConaughey flash that million-dollar smile in various stages of undress.

In that respect he's something of anomaly among Hollywood heartthrobs. A lot of serious thespians cursed with high cheekbones, delicate features, strong jaws and pouty lips go out of their way to play down their looks, to grunge it up and embrace roles where they're borderline unrecognizable.

Johnny Depp is a good example. I watched Crybaby a few weeks ago. One of the film's many pleasures is watching Depp finally play a heartthrob role, a part that doesn't hide his atomic handsomeness under layers of ugly make-up or weird hairstyles. Even when Depp appears in commercial films he invariably tries to ugly himself up; he reportedly was very eager to play Jack Sparrow as a pirate without a nose. Disney head honcho Michael Eisner was understandably apoplectic. It was bad enough that the Sexiest Man Alive was sporting a look seemingly modeled on Captain Lou Albano; the whole noseless part was taking it entirely too far.

There is a widespread perception that the very craft of acting is womanly and effete, that wearing make-up and making pretend that you're other people is not a particularly manly or macho way to make a living. I think this helps explain why so many good-looking actors try to make people forget they're gorgeous, why Brad Pitt jumped at the chance to grunge it up in arty fare like 12 Monkeys and Fight Club. Yet McConaughey seems either refreshingly or depressingly comfortable with being merely an object of audience desire, eye candy for folks to drool over for an hour and a half in the dark.

He's become typecast, on and offscreen, as Hunky Von Smokesalot, Dreamy Q. Affablestonerdude. His propensity for shirtlessness has become a national joke. Even Pacino in Two For The Money marvels at how great McConaughey looks with his shirt off, at how well-developed his abs and pecs are. Hopefully McConaughey will be able to leverage the newfound box-office bankability playing laid-back studs in female-friendly hits like How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days, Wedding Planner, Fool's Gold and Failure To Launch to rediscover his inner character actor, to find another Dazed & Confused and really sink his teeth into another juicy, offbeat part. Then again, considering his upcoming slate of films includes titles like Tropic Thunder, The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and, most ominously of all, Surfer Dude, I wouldn't start placing bets on any Oscar nominations for McConaughey any time soon.

Filed Under: Film

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