Awards SeasonFilmOpinion

Matthew McConaughey Reinvented: From RomCom King to Serious Dramatic Actor

Charlie Greenwald ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff

My mom, like many other heterosexual women who get hot and bothered by the presence of southern charm, loves Matthew McConaughey. I, on the other hand, haven’t always. As with many male celebrities who my girlfriends and relatives have had crushes on over the years, I used to hate hearing his name. Like Ashton Kutcher or Ryan Reynolds, I innately despised him for being in cheesy romantic comedies and also more handsome than me.

Early in his career, McConaughey had a promising career going, starring in films like the hilarious Dazed and Confused and the powerful John Grisham adaptation of A Time to Kill. However, once he achieved sex-symbol status and hit superstardom, he started taking cheap roles in mediocre fare like the painful Failure to Launch with Sarah Jessica Parker. For most of the 2000’s, his movies were shallow and unfunny.

Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker in Failure to Launch. Photo Courtesy of IMDb.com.
Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker in Failure to Launch. Photo Courtesy of IMDb.com.

However, after seeing a few of McConaughey’s most recent films, I’ve come to seriously reevaluate my opinion of him. Through intense selectivity, he has transformed himself from typecast rom-com pretty boy into one of the best and most sought after dramatic actors in American cinema today. One only needs to look at his work in contemporary dramas, like The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Mud, The Dallas Buyers Club and the upcoming The Wolf of Wall Street to realize that he has reinvented himself as an intense, extremely talented and hugely versatile performer.

After a series of pathetic pictures that redefined futility, including Surfer Dude, Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, McConaughey starred in the career-altering movie The Lincoln Lawyer. In the film, he plays a slick lawyer named Mickey Haller who gets in over his head with a rich playboy accused of rape and murder. For the first time in years, McConaughey was carrying a dramatic movie solely on his back. It was also his first deathly serious performance in a long time, in what would eventually become his best-reviewed movie in a decade, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Much like the popular 1996 film A Time to Kill, in which he also played a lawyer involved in a controversial case, the movie relies on McConaughey’s character’s inner demons to be put to bed before he can truly crack the case. From the opening scenes of the film, in which his character negotiates terms with members of a biker gang, it’s clear that McConaughey isn’t here to goof around with his shirt off. He delivers his lines with intensity and zeal, commanding the screen and bouncing off his fellow actors with ease.

The film kick-started McConaughey’s new career trajectory and turned some heads, as NPR’s Ella Taylor put best in her review: “Just when you thought Matthew McConaughey had settled into pre-retirement content to play the (dry-aged) beefcake in a string of dippy romantic comedies, the actor comes roaring back with some real acting.” Critics all agreed that McConaughey was back in the conversation now, and he had made a huge splash—but he wasn’t done there.

Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe. Photo Credit: © 2011 - Voltage Pictures.
Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe. Photo Credit: © 2011 – Voltage Pictures.

After outstanding supporting roles in comedies like Tropic Thunder and Bernie, McConaughey took his biggest step outside of his comfort zone in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe. McConaughey starred as the title character, a crooked cop who chases down the naive suburban family that hires him as a contract killer. In a role that normally would go to an actor with a history of intimidating roles like Josh Brolin or Tom Berenger, McConaughey shined as the terrifying, stone-cold killer who would stop at nothing until he was satisfied. Adam Ross, of the film review website The Aristocrat, said that McConaughey’s performance was “tantalizing and shocking in a way you don’t see coming.”

Although the movie didn’t make a lot of money, film gurus and movie directors praised McConaughey’s work. Curtis Hanson, director of L.A. Confidential, said that McConaughey was “better than ever,” and that he hopes “to see more of it in the future.” Little did Hanson know, McConaughey’s best of 2012 was yet to come.

Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike. Photo Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com.
Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike. Photo Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com.

While Killer Joe did not get the attention it deserved, another one of McConaughey’s recent films did. This little film, so popular that it is rumored to be adapted for Broadway, was Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. It was an okay movie, but I can honestly say that McConaughey was by far the best part. Channing Tatum starred in the title role, a male dancer who is forced to put his retirement on hold as he tries to save his friend (Alex Pettyfer) from the clutches of his shady boss Dallas, played by McConaughey. When I saw the movie with my mom over the summer, I went in thinking I would hate it and be made fun of if I ever discussed it publicly. But I didn’t, and I wasn’t. The movie was hilarious, energetic and suspenseful all in one, largely due to the magnetic performance from McConaughey.

McConaughey’s Dallas is an incredible character to follow during the course of this movie; he’s so smooth on stage but so mysterious off it. While a father figure to many of his strippers, he’s also an underhanded businessman on the side, and McConaughey plays it so well that you never know what to expect from his enigmatic character. For the first time in his life, McConaughey got Oscar buzz for his performance.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. Photo Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. Photo Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features.

Then the nail in the coffin came with the one-two punch of Mud and Dallas Buyers Club, where McConaughey solidified his place as a virtuoso actor in modern day film. McConaughey played two completely opposite characters; one, a homeless, emotionally tortured fugitive who befriends a bunch of local kids in order to reunite with his true love, and the other, a HIV-infected homophobe from Texas who begins smuggling alternative medicines across the border in the 1980’s. These were two of his toughest roles yet; he has been able to carry movies for two decades on his charismatic shoulders, but now, he’s doing it with much meatier roles. Both characters were tortured characters trying desperately to escape from incredibly difficult situations. These are the sorts of roles Christian Bale thrives in—and now, McConaughey is too. As Mud, McConaughey creates a drifter so pitiable, so melancholy that you can’t help but root for him, and as Ron Woodroff, he transforms completely (losing over 40 pounds) to become a flawed, reckless Southern AIDS crusader. He soars in both performances.

It’s no secret that the film business is a tough business, and if you’re an actor, you have to be careful if you want to stay in the spotlight. Over the years, careers in Hollywood have risen and fallen at the hands of poor decision-making. Nicolas Cage, once a respected and revered actor, has become a punch line, and Lindsay Lohan, once a box office draw, lost all credibility after she flushed her personal life down the toilet and made movies like Herbie: Fully Loaded. McConaughey, on the other hand, is heading in the opposite direction. After a recent string of great roles in great movies, his career has been revived— nobody knows, or can wait for, what’s next. All I know is that he’s totally pulled a 180, and I think that along with Leonardo DiCaprio, Denzel Washington and Sean Penn, he’s right up there with the best American actors working today. The future looks bright—here’s looking at you, Matt.

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