What in the world has happened to Matthew McConaughey? It was just three and half years ago that his career comeback — gleefully dubbed the McConaissance — culminated in a best actor Oscar for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club, just as his memorable stint on HBO’s True Detective was coming to a victorious close. That apex turned out to be more like the crest of a wave. The backlash may have even started during his bizarre, off-putting Oscar speech. As he boldly asserted that “it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates”, you could feel the second thoughts pulsing through the auditorium. As if enacting some kind of institutional justice, McConaughey’s career started tanking just about as soon as the ceremony ended.
Since then, he has starred in a series of flops that have put him in an unprecedented position: just a few years after his triumphant comeback, he is already in need of another one.
First came Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, an ambitious sci-fi film from a director who had never had a flop. The 2014 film turned a profit with the help of a robust overseas box office, but it received mixed reviews from critics and underwhelming ticket sales in the US. Still, as flops go, Interstellar was a mere prelude to McConaughey’s dreadful 2016.
The civil war drama Free State of Jones was eviscerated by critics for its “white saviour” narrative and failed to gross even half of its $50 million (Dh183.6 million) budget; Gus Van Sant’s mournful indie The Sea of Trees was booed mercilessly at Cannes and received only a token theatrical release; and Gold, which featured McConaughey baldly aiming for his second Oscar in a modern-day tale of mineral prospecting, flopped mightily with a $7 million gross and zero awards consideration.
His cold streak continues with The Dark Tower, released last weekend to the worst reviews of McConaughey’s career. The Stephen King adaptation has made a lukewarm $19 million so far, although with most of it surely coming from King’s legion of devotees, a steep drop-off should be expected as the word gets out about its quality.
It is nowhere close to earning the kind of money to launch a franchise, which is what its financiers certainly had in mind. Still, it’s not fair to lay the blame entirely at McConaughey’s feet. The film itself is a mess, but McConaughey is not the problem, turning the character of Walter, an evil sorcerer, into more of a sleazy dudebro. It’s an interesting choice that doesn’t totally work. Then again, in such a convoluted film, what would?
In fact, in each of his flops, McConaughey is the best part. With a paunch and artificial bald cap, his performance in Gold was derided as a pale imitation of Christian Bale in the superior American Hustle, but McConaughey achieves a palpable desperation as the second-rate prospector who hits it big.
In The Sea of Trees, a maudlin art film about a man who plans to commit suicide in a Japanese forest, he plays against type as a buttoned-up, ineffectual college professor, a normal guy who, after losing his wife, becomes racked with grief and guilt. The films are equally mediocre; McConaughey’s performances are consistently better than the material. His box office cold streak can most likely be explained by a poor eye for material. It’s easy to see why a star would be initially drawn to these projects.
The Dark Tower was a long awaited adaptation of a revered series of books, and Gold was written and directed by Oscar winner Stephen Gaghan (Traffic) and based on a remarkable true story. But it feels like his decision-making process stopped there.
McConaughey is a heady guy but perhaps not a particularly thorough one. He may be more attracted to the idea behind a film, without worrying about that little thing called a script. Each of these scripts was a convoluted mess, with The Dark Tower sporting dialogue so hackneyed it makes the Fast and the Furious movies look like Hemingway.
But even if McConaughey could choose his projects more wisely, is the material even there? Over the past few years, his middle-aged peers have had an equally difficult time finding success. George Clooney hasn’t had a major hit since Gravity, and he was only a supporting character in it. Even Tom Cruise’s reputation as box office gold has taken a hit, with three of his past four films severely underperforming at the domestic box office (although all did well internationally).
Brad Pitt’s latest film, War Machine, went straight to Netflix, the only place where a movie star is still a draw, and so will Will Smith’s next one, Bright, his first starring role since Collateral Beauty flopped magnificently last December. It’s almost like Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with you if you’re too old to play a superhero.
Perhaps there is also an element of collateral beauty at play here. Middle-aged men are having trouble finding good projects in Hollywood, just as young women and people of colour are getting more opportunities. This is both a cultural and economic phenomenon, a liberal movement to elevate representatives of oppressed minorities, as well an offering to young, diverse audiences that are understandably weary of watching stories solely about ageing white guys.
Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel seem to be doing just fine, while Gal Gadot and Charlize Theron are as hot as anyone at the moment. On the other hand, McConaughey, who encouraged Americans earlier this year to “embrace” Trump, may look to liberals a lot more like the past than the future.
Of course, we would be willing to welcome McConaughey back into our good graces if he would just make a few good films. His upcoming docket is promising. He’ll team up with Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine for The Beach Bum, playing a “rebellious stoner” named Moondog. I’m guessing the part was written with him in mind.
There is also White Boy Rick, a true story of an FBI informant turned drug runner from ‘71 director Yann Demange (who might also be directing the next Bond film), and Serenity, a reality-bending thriller from Steven Knight, who helmed Tom Hardy’s guy-in-a-car movie Locke.
McConaughey is clearly still taking chances and uninterested in repeating the mistakes that led to that run of dreadful romcoms (Ghost of Girlfriends Past, Fool’s Gold and Failure to Launch).
Taking chances, however, can still lead to failure, and if this new crop of collaborators don’t return him to artistic and commercial glory, he should consider returning to the strategy that sparked his McConnaissance in the first place. After bottoming out on romcoms, he took a couple years off and then showed up in 2012 as an ageing stripper in Magic Mike and a small-town sheriff in Bernie. Both were supporting roles in which McConaughey could be as weird as he wanted to be.
Those films — particularly Magic Mike — reminded viewers what they loved about McConaughey in the first place. A Texas outlaw with a Venusian soul, McConaughey is a unique, absurd screen presence that doesn’t quite fit into traditional Hollywood archetypes, but with a slight change of course, he can still burn brighter than any star.