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McConnaisance: the critical redemption of Matthew McConaughey

In 2012 the much-maligned Matthew McConaughey has achieved one of the most impressive career revivals in Hollywood history. How did he do it?

Centuries into the future, when the pyramids have crumbled to dust and unionised robots with reproductive organs live, work and vote among us, historians may look back and discover the year 2012 marked a turning point in the evolution of human kind for three reasons: 1) the end of the Mayan calendar and thus, not the end of civilization, 2)  the discovery of the Higgs boson particle and 3) the year Matthew McConaughey officially became a credible and critically acclaimed actor.

Having been an avid follower of the ‘McConnaisance’ since the dawn of it — 2011′s twisty under-rated legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyer, featuring a terrific performance from McConaughey as a smug attorney tricked into defending a client he knows is guilty of a crime another of his clients is in jail for — I was pleasantly surprised when, a few days ago, I Googled his name and the following auto-complete appeared:

If the algorithms of the world’s most sophisticated search engine are capable of determining that the star of such vomit bag rom-com fodder as Ghosts of Girlfriend’s Past, The Wedding Planner and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days has changed his wicked ways, exchanging thoughtless “cha-ching” rom-coms for genuine “artistic” ventures, perhaps we can accept that the Higher Powers of the internet have written it in cyber stone.

Better yet, we can look at the films themselves — a string of productions boosted by high-impact performances from McConaughey that prompted The Guardian and countless other outlets to publish stories with headlines such as ‘From Himbo to High Brow‘. The McConnaisance presents one of the most spectacular career revivals of any actor in Hollywood history, made more tantalising by the knowledge that it may only have just begun.

How a former butt-of-many-jokes pretty boy scored such serious cred in a remarkably short period of time is a result of good fortune, gambles that paid off and the assistance of a bunch of well-regarded directors to help get him over the line. And of course, despite how odd this word may have sounded to the critical populace a year and a bit ago, talent. In the thick of new-found acclaim, McConaughey has defended his previous syrupy sweet rom-com oeuvre (“It’s easy to demean them…I enjoyed them. They paid well; they were fun,” he told The Guardian) but there is a sense a corner has well and truly been turned, and there’s no going back.

With the exception of The Lincoln Lawyer (released in March 2011) every McConnaisance movie so far (four in total) released in Australia arrived in the second half of 2012, in the space of a mere seven weeks. A concentrated burst of McConaughey muscle.

The 43-year-old actor 2.0′s scene-stealing performance in Magic Mike (released July 26) saw him play an entrepreneurial owner of a male strip club who dreams of expanding the business but has to put up with Channing Tatum to do so; hardly a fair trade. If the public thought “ah yes, that male stripper movie”, film aficionados knew better: it was directed by Steven Soderbergh, who smashed through the Sundance ceiling in 1989 with Sex, Lies, and Videotape and went on to forge an audacious genre-flipping career on the fringes of mainstream Hollywood. Now in the early phases of the annual American awards season, McConaughey’s performance is generating serious buzz.

In Bernie (August 16) Australians saw McConaughey in a wily, tightly calculated comedic role as a righteous sheriff of an East Texas community who rubs up against a kindly undertaker played by Jack Black. Directed by an in-fine-form Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, A Scanner Darkly, etc) the film was inspired by a real-life story and described, generously but not inappropriately, by The Age’s Jake Wilson as one of “the best comedies of the century“. Wilson also observed that: “McConaughey’s continuing comeback is a sight to behold”.

In Killer Joe (September 6), McConaughey stars as a disgusting hit man who makes women — at least one — commit unspeakable acts with chicken drumsticks. The film was directed by 77-year-old William ‘The Exorcist‘ Friedkin, whose work in the genre of projectile vomit and 360 degree possessed child head spins remains virtually unparalleled. The scumbag soul-less nature of McConaughey’s character, brought to life with frighteningly realistic menace, hits you like a shovel to the face, and proved just how far he had come. Women wouldn’t want to share the same postcode with this character let alone sleep with him. Salon ran a story with the headline ‘Matthew McConaughey’s comeback gets creepier‘.

But McConaughey isn’t resting on his laurels; not by a long shot. Writing on the yet to be released Mud, from emerging writer/director Jeff Nichols (who won the Grand Prix at Critics’ Week at Cannes last year for his acclaimed thriller Take Shelter), The Guardian’s Jason Solomons described McConaughey’s performance as “the best of his career”.

McConaughey will also appear opposite Nicole Kidman and John Cusack in The Paperboy, ”a dark, angrily steaming tale“. Currently in production is The Dallas Buyer’s Club, based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic drug-taking HIV patient. Matthew McConaughey plays Woodroof. The director is Jean-Marc Vallée (Café de Flore).

As if sensing that his envelope of critical kudos needed a stamp — something to really deliver a message once and for all that More Ghosts From Girlfriends Past is not a sequel on the cards anytime soon — McConaughey is now dabbling in the old ‘psychically deformed’ chestnut, having lost obscene amounts of weight for his upcoming role in Wolf of Wall Street. He went from an actor whose on-screen look went from this:

To this:

The director of Wolf of Wall Street? Some guy named Martin Scorsese.

Photographs of McConaughey show a man who looks wan, scabby and riddled with diseases. Coupled with his spectacular career realignment, this performance doesn’t just smell like bad health. It smells like an Oscar.

 

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  • 1
    Bradley J. Dixon
    Posted December 11, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I really do love it when maligned or disrespected actors decide to reinvent themselves as committed “serious” thespians. Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey are two of my personal favourites. I haven’t seen too many of McConaughey’s recent films (apart from the dire Killer Joe) but I am totally willing to take him serious if he keeps his damn shirt on from now on.

    (Allow me to don my propeller-hat for a moment and just point out that Google suggests “matthew mcconaughey credible actor” because you yourself have searched for that phrase before. Note that the link is purple, meaning already visited. The auto-complete suggestions under that first one are what will appear when anyone else searches for his name. Sadly, “workout” is indeed the first auto-complete option suggested.

    But to be fair, the man is cut from stone.)

  • 2
    Jake Wilson
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Go Matthew. For the record, the line you quote from my Bernie review was modified by a sub-editor (it happens) and was meant to refer specifically to the 21st century — so, a dozen years of contenders to choose from rather than a hundred. That said I stand by the verdict!

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  1. By Top 10 films of 2012 | Cinetology on December 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm

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