Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike pulls off its own wonderful trick. It takes three actors who once coasted on their sex appeal—Channing Tatum, Olivia Munn, and Matthew McConaughey—and makes them sympathetic by casting them as people whose work depends entirely on their sex appeal. For relative newcomers Tatum and Munn, Magic Mike finally offers them the chance to be sexy and deep. But it's McConaughey who invites the most comparisons between his stripper character and his public image. In the film, he's practically making fun of Matthew McConaughey, the star: he's shirtless, wearing a cowboy hat, and speaking with an exaggerated Texan drawl. He even seductively bangs on a large drum during a striptease—an unmistakable reference to his 1999 arrest for playing the bongos naked and baked.
That gag is the latest move in a career resurgence that finds McConaughey trying to become the next Brad Pitt. In the mid 1990s, Pitt stopped starring in loverboy roles and reinvented himself as a masterful character actor who just happens to be really, really ridiculously good-looking. In both last year’s The Lincoln Lawyer and this year's Bernie, McConaughey played crafty lawyers and finally earned critical goodwill for the first time in years, and later this summer, he’ll delve deeper into the indie world by playing a cruel and sadistic hit man in the NC-17-rated Killer Joe. There’s nary a romantic comedy or action adventure—his former bread and butter—in sight for the next few years, and as hard as it is to believe, he hasn't made a movie with Kate Hudson since 2008. Magic Mike could very well become McConaughey’s Fight Club, the film that definitively heralds an ex-dreamboat's new career phase. Like Tyler Durden, McConaughey’s Dallas—a calculating club owner and part-time stripper with big ambitions and dead eyes—is a role that's flashy but gritty, and much more memorable than Tatum’s dull moral center.
It’s possible that McConaughey has just gotten bored of crinkling noses with Kate Hudson. But it’s more likely that he's realized that embracing darker projects is the only way his career won't cannibalize itself. (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is never not going to be on TV, and he ain't getting any younger.) But what's weird is his return to dramas is technically not his second career shift, but his third.
McConaughey started his career by gaining good notices as an up-and-coming dramatic actor in serious movies like A Time to Kill and Amistad. He was poised to be the next Paul Newman: a hunk who could act. What went wrong? After headlining record-breaking flops (ahem, Sahara) and trying to shore up his female fan base with rom coms that made diminishing box office returns, his name became a synonym of fluff and laziness. Which is funny—not to mention incredibly unfair and hypocritical—since so many of Hollywood movies are supposed to be escapist distractions. The dismissal of McConaughey for being an unserious lightweight exposes a strange and counterintuitive audience assumption: that stars should be serious and dedicated about Cinema and their Craft, even when the movies we most pay to see are about as substantial as the smoke from McConaughey’s bong. Hence why every celeb doing movie promotions gives canned answers about signing up for a film after falling in love with a script or their character. (Shrew Girlfriend #2? Really?) McConaughey simply figured out a long time ago that people—or at least many, many people—just want to be entertained. He provides that service, honestly and winsomely. So why has he been pilloried for giving the public what it wants?
Part of his problem is that audiences don’t want to admit the stuff they actually like. And he may be too handsome, or too ripped, or his hair too long and curly, to be taken seriously. (It’s not just ladies who have to fight stereotypes about dumb blondes.) It’s easy to hate on (read: be jealous of) McConaughey—for being one of those lucky few for whom genetics and circumstance seem to have set them up for life, and it doesn’t help that his only extracurricular activities seem to be working out shirtless on the beach and banging (and marrying—mazel tov!) Brazilian swimsuit models. But the main reason why McConaughey is a victim of his own success is that people underestimate the work that goes into being funny and charming. And he is undeniably talented: without his easygoing charisma and dude-bro affability, McConaughey’s career would’ve vanished like Luke Wilson’s. But therein lies the paradox: the better McConaughey got at his job—and the easier he made it look—the more people resented him for it.
At least some of the condescension directed at McConaughey is because there's a widespread belief that romantic comedies are more formulaic than other kinds of films—as if robots battling robots or two cranky cops learning to get along were any less predictable—and that Rom Com Black Hole has sucked in Katherine Heigl, Kate Hudson, and Meg Ryan's careers. Compare McConaughey to Johnny Depp, for example, who also prolifically stars in terrible, derivative movies—and without even the fan service of looking hot. Yet Depp, who has never starred in a rom com, still enjoys overwhelmingly positive buzz because his Tim Burton collaborations get categorized as “artsy” and because he shows up to award shows looking like a boho-hipster. In contrast, McConaughey is unpretentious and forthright about being a crowd-pleaser. It’s not his fault that the crowd doesn’t like what pleases them.
Interestingly, one of McConaughey’s most promising upcoming projects is a HBO series with his real-life buddy Woody Harrelson, who has had his own problems with being taken seriously. After making a striking first impression on America as the slow Woody Boyd on Cheers, Harrelson had to play a string of psychos plus a paraplegic porn-peddler in dark films like Natural Born Killers, The People vs. Larry Flynt, The Messenger, and Rampart to have a fighting chance at a career. Like Pitt and Harrelson before him, McConaughey will have to reestablish his actorly “cred” by obscuring his looks and his comedic talent—the qualities that made him a star—to continue being a star. It’s a lesson his equally charming, equally handsome, equally dreamy Magic Mike-costar Channing Tatum better learn now.
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