Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rethinking Matthew McConaughey

I feel bad for using this ridiculous image as the main one for the article, but if he's going to continue to make artistically interesting choices, then I might no longer get to make fun of him anymore, DAMMIT!
If you're anything like me - and why wouldn't you want to be? I'm grrrrrreat. And a cartoon tiger, apparently - then you probably don't think all that much of Matthew McConaughey, if you think of him at all. For the best part of the last twenty years, he's been a blandly charming presence in a succession of slightly rubbish dramas and extremely rubbish romantic comedies, most of which, if their posters are to be believed, seem to revolve around him leaning on things:

I choose to believe that the level of commitment he brings to any given role can be determined by the angle at which he leans and how few clothes he is wearing on the poster. So we see that he is putting a lot of effort into Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, could give a shit about Failure to Launch, and is super-committed to his work in Surfer, Dude.

So far, so what? McConaughey is just another pretty Hollywood face coasting on his Southern charm through a procession of undemanding films designed to pass the time, then be promptly forgotten about once their posters come down. He hardly seems like someone worth getting worked up about; you might as well get annoyed at a chair for being comfy, but not luxuriously so.

In recent months, though, I've been reassessing my opinion (or non-opinion, really) of Matthew McConaughey - to the extent that, for this post, I finally learnt how to spell his name - as it became apparent that he had started cropping up in the casts for films that I was genuinely interested in, and seemed to have made a break from leaning on things to appearing in films with a bit of bite to them.

Case in point, the upcoming William Friedkin film, Killer Joe, in which McConaughey plays a crooked cop who is hired by a young man (Emile Hirsch) to murder his mother so that the family can collect on her life insurance. Based on the play by Pulitzer Prize-winner and erstwhile Seinfeld extra Tracy Letts, and also starring Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon, Killer Joe has all the ingredients to be a twisted and nasty little dark comedy with Southern Gothic undertones, but it all hinged on whether or not McConaughey could bring real darkness to the role. The recently released trailer suggests that, oh fuck, he just might:

Obviously it's a bit difficult to judge a film on its trailer alone, but even from that two minute slice it becomes apparent that there is something weird and chilling in McConaughey's performance as the titular Joe. Here, his lazy charm comes across as menacing and unsettling, and the NC-17 rating for the film suggests that it's going to be all kinds of messed up. This is about as far away from the typical McConaughey performance as you can get.

What's even more surprising about it is that this isn't the anomaly that it could have been. There are plenty of actors who wallow in mediocrity before occasionally rising up to do something special, only to fall back into bad habits right afterwards - see: Travolta, John - but McConaughey's current slate seems to suggest that he is choosing more interesting projects, either because he is worried that the romantic comedy roles are going to start drying up as the Josh Duhamels of the world rise up to replace him, or because they already have.  

Bernie, which re-unites McConaughey with director Richard Linklater, who got the very best from McConaughey when he cast him as Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, is currently playing in limited release in the U.S. In its curious blend of broad comedy and murder - Jack Black plays a gay man who befriends, then murders, a rich widow (Shirley MacLaine) and winds up becoming a hero to the town, even as McConaughey's D.A. tries to prosecute him - it finds McConaughey delving into a weirder style of comedy than he has in the past.

McConaughey's attempted embrace of darker, odder comedy started in 2010 when he appeared in an episode of Danny McBride's hilarious and vile series Eastbound & Down, and again in two episodes of its third and final season, and Bernie seems to be a natural extension of that development, as indeed does Magic Mike, the latest film from the insanely prolific Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike will be the third film he has released in the last year, following Contagion and Haywire). The film already sounds completely nuts - it's a comedy about male strippers starring Channing Tatum and supposedly based at least in part on Tatum's experiences as a male stripper in his early 20s - before you even get to the inclusion of McConaughey giving what appears to be another slightly outlandish performance, similar to the one he gives in Bernie.

Magic Mike is probably the film of McConaughey's upcoming releases that I'm the most dubious about, largely because it's the only one that hasn't been released or played at any festivals yet, so there's no advance word on whether or not it's good, but also because Steven Soderbergh is not a name you associate with comedy. He can make films that have dashes of humour (the Ocean's series)The Informant!, which was a lot wryer than I think Magic Mike is aiming to be. It seems like it could be really entertaining or a complete and utter fiasco, with little chance of it falling square in the middle.

Yet it's encouraging that McConaughey is willing to star in a film that has the potential of being a fiasco, rather than choosing to star in films destined to be mediocre at best. Whilst it remains to be seen whether or not he can recapture the promise he showed in Dazed and Confused and seems to have shown in Killer Joe for the long term, I'd like to think that this is the start of an interesting period in McConaughey's career. Maybe he'll grow into an interesting character actor, maybe he'll just do these handful of films then go back to the stuff he did all along - he is currently filming Thunder Run, an action film about the invasion of Iraq from Con Air's Simon West that could be good were it not directed by Simon West. (I mean, I love Con Air as much as the next man, but come on.) Either way, this is the first time in, well, ever, that I can genuinely say that I am interested in something Matthew McConaughey is doing, and that's got to count for something.