The Curious Case of Matthew McConaughey

James Gallagher

Failure to Launch: Sahara; Fool’s Gold… it doesn’t sound much like the CV of an Oscar-nominee does it? Yet such is the strength of the “McConaissance” – the inspired portmanteau for Matthew McConaughey’s stunning return to form – that no-one even remembers these films anymore. Heck, I’m sure Matt himself has probably tried pretty hard to forget them too. It’s a fascinating “return to form” that began with The Lincoln Lawyer and is showing no sign of running out of steam anytime soon, as evidenced by the fact that he’s the main star of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, due later this year.

This week McConaughey’s latest foray into high-drama, Dallas Buyers Club, is released, having been out in the US since late 2013. The film’s critical acclaim has been almost universal, so a “Best Picture” nomination at this year’s Oscars was all but inevitable. However, most of the critical focus has been on the performances rather than the plot or Jean-Marc Vallée’s stellar direction. Starring McConaughey and Jared Leto (another actor, funnily enough, whose performances continue to amaze me, even though I’m well aware of his sensational turns in Requiem for a Dream and Mr Nobody), Dallas Buyers Club tells the true tale of Ron Woodroof who, in 1985, began to smuggle medical drugs into the US from Mexico after being diagnosed with HIV. It’s shameless Oscar-bait, no doubt about it, but don’t let that take anything away from Matt’s performance which, like all of his performances over the last three years, is superb.

I first became aware of McConaughey when I was an innocent, ill-educated child with a terrible taste in cinema. For some bizarre reason I was obsessed with Robert Zemeckis’ sci-fi clusterfuck Contact when I was younger, a film in which Matthew plays a Christian philosopher who attempts to scupper Jodie Foster’s attempts at first contact. After that I went back in time a few years (cinematically speaking, obviously…) to watch him as the vicious psychopath with a great name, Vilmer Slaughter, in one of the barmiest slasher films of all time; the critical and commercial flop Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, before seeing him in one of the greatest “coming-of-age” films of the nineties; Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. I didn’t really know who he was – after all, I was only young – but I sort of knew that I liked him.

Then he just… disappeared. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like his career ever really slowed down but for a ten-year period McConaughey simply wasn’t on the radar of anyone who actually enjoys good cinema. A series of terrible (or perhaps not, as I’ll explain in a moment) career choices saw him typecast as a smarmy, self-obsessed cad. RomCom after RomCom saw him slowly but surely demolish the quality of his own obituary. It was almost as though he was embarking on a systematic destruction of all of the goodwill he’d built up in the nineties, a process that came to a head with 2009’s Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, a film so hateful it had the potential to be a permanent career killer.

You know how they say that a week is a long time in politics? Well, it seems a year is a long time in the film industry because, after a brief hiatus in 2010, McConaughey returned a brand new man. 2011 saw him star in two decent films in a row – The Lincoln Lawyer, followed by Bernie – neither of which, shock horror, were romantic comedies. On the back of this success, the McConaissance really got underway in 2012 with no less than four brilliant performances in films that couldn’t be more different from one another. He was like a man reborn; the brainless dreck that had defined him for over a decade was all but forgotten in the space of just one year as he taught us to appreciate strippers in Magic Mike, to fear the mere mention of KFC in Killer Joe and to relive our childhoods in Mud. He even stole The Paperboy from under the feet of Cusack, Efron and Kidman, three actors who – at the time at least – were far more popular than him.

I’ll never eat KFC again…

As you can see then, Matthew’s career is full of twists and turns. It might seem like he’s had a lucky break in recent years, though I can’t help think there’s much more to it than that. No-one just drops off the radar like that and then comes back without some sort of plan in mind. No-one goes from Sahara to The Wolf of Wall Street without at least some sense of what they want from their career. If you take a close look at the apparent “wilderness decade” you might notice a common theme; money. Let’s look at the Box Office takings for some of McConaughey’s worst films…

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days – $177m
Failure to Launch – $128m
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past – $102m

Now let’s look at the takings for some of his best films…

Mud – $28.8m
Killer Joe – $3.6m (a loss of 64%)
The Paperboy – $2.4m (a loss of over 80%)

It’s a sad fact but, as you can see quite clearly, the better films don’t bring in the mega bucks quite like the romantic comedies do. Yet what if this was Matt’s plan all along? His work in the nineties proves that he’s always been a decent actor and though his roles in the noughties were awful, his performances weren’t all that bad. So many actors struggle for years in independent cinema and very few actually make it big. Some incredible talents fade into obscurity because they soldier on through a series of loss-making films – films that might well be brilliant – because independent cinema is their passion. None of them can afford to make such crushing losses and, as such, their dreams are shattered.

One man who can afford such losses, however, is Matthew McConaughey. He made millions in the noughties, albeit in crap films, so now he can afford to indulge his passion for decent, small-budget cinema. Starring in “Generic RomCom 712” won’t get the critics to see you in a positive light but it will make you some money. Then you can star in a bunch of great independent films, safe in the knowledge that you’re already a very rich man, and achieve what few actors ever do; critical and commercial popularity.

In effect, Matthew McConaughey might well be a genius. If his RomCom decade was part of some “long game” then he’s basically one of the savviest men to have ever lived. If it wasn’t, and he’s just struck lucky, then fair play to him anyway. The McConaissance is wonderful because it proves what some people have recognised for years; that Matthew McConaughey is a brilliant actor, and always has been. And if ever you’re in any doubt about just how much people’s perceptions of Matthew have changed, just remember that he’s a strong contender for an Oscar win in March. I bet you never thought you’d be saying that four years ago!

About James Gallagher

James is a film addict, a bitter misanthrope and a graduate from the University of Sheffield. Raised in Birkenhead, he is like a (very) poor man's Paul O'Grady. He has lots of opinions – almost all of which are wrong – and can normally be found reading, writing and drinking whisky. @theugliestfraud