When the going gets tough, the tough get going. But when the going gets tough for Matthew McConaughey, he gets going to the beach.
In the first few months of this still-young year, McConaughey has already starred in two films geographically overlapping in the Florida Keys, and yet worlds apart. January’s Serenity starts out as a smoldering neo-noir before hooking a hard left into a weird ontological parable, while March’s The Beach Bum is a shaggy ramble following an eccentric law-breaker’s aimless flight from justice.
The former maintains a po-faced seriousness even as it tumbles into high-concept lunacy, while the latter is a film about taking it easy that takes it easy. Any differences of genre or tone, however, cannot diminish the fundamental, ineffable McConaughey-ness that courses through both films.
This quiet one-two punch has returned McConaughey to his wheelhouse, which is located somewhere between Serenity’s palm-tree-slung hammock and The Beach Bum’s cabana bar. In both films, he plays overgrown slackers, men content to work just hard enough to finance a lifestyle of vice and relaxation. As Serenity’s Baker Dill, he fishes for profit, drinks for fun, and beds a grateful local played by Diane Lane for a little bit of both. In The Beach Bum, McConaughey’s mad poet Moondog appears to be more comfortable behind a bong than a typewriter, speaking like he doesn’t know where a sentence will go once he’s begun it.
McConaughey’s looseness extends to his body language in both films, at times swaggering with a stoner’s wobbliness, and at others gliding through his scenes with the fluid grace of Bruce Lee. McConaughey has always been at his best when he decides to be instead of do, in roles radiating such beatific relaxation that the audience is liable to cop a contact high.
But the oeuvre of McConaughey has held more twists and turns than one of the dusty Texan roads he grew up on. He was the Next Big Thing during the ’90s, before becoming a seeming casualty of poorly reviewed, lowest common denominator rom-coms for the following decade. Although a resurgence termed the “McConaissance” returned him to critical esteem at the top of the 2010s and culminated in a pivotal Oscar win in 2013, he’s struggled to parlay his second coming into continued success, resulting in a string of misfires that Serenity and The Beach Bum have now broken.
The latest phase of the actor’s filmography gets him back to basics, effectively relaunching the stalled McConaissance. After a few years of petering out, his comeback needed a comeback of its own, and he pulled it off by doing what he does best — that is to say, as little as possible. That’s what viewers love about the perpetually tanned, easygoing McConaughey: He gets older, but his onscreen persona stays the same age.
The rise-and-fall (and rise) narrative couldn’t last
As recently as five years ago, the trajectory of McConaughey’s career was easy enough to chart. Point A was a promising start as a naturalistic, agreeable presence, the kind of guy who could score his first big film role simply by sidling up to a casting director at a bar. His performance as aging skirt-chaser Wooderson in 1993’s Dazed and Confused made him an overnight star, his clarion call of “alright, alright, alright” becoming a mantra for all those going with the flow.
That role would come to define him on- and off-screen up to the present day, but he spent the remainder of the ’90s demonstrating his range and reliability as a movie star. He cut a dashing figure as a lawyer in the classical Grisham mold in A Time to Kill, and helped guide the film to a massive blockbuster payout in 1996. (Roger Ebert confessed to being “moved” by McConaughey’s big monologue near the tail end of the film.) The next year, he got Steven Spielberg’s seal of approval with a clutch supporting role in the slave ship drama Amistad, even generating Oscar murmurs.
Point B spread out across the Aughts, as McConaughey took a sojourn through the wilds of mediocrity. His name grew synonymous with a pitiable strain of rom-com that channeled the actor’s charisma into a more approachable, dateable persona. The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past made their star into a punch line between 2001 and 2009, but because the ticket sales remained robust, there was no cause to mess with success.
Even when McConaughey tried something different — as in the Al Pacino-led 2005 sports gambling drama Two for the Money — his output lacked the luster of those revelatory early turns. (An “acting chore” slightly less arduous than “carrying every grain of the spring’s miserable Sahara,” raved USA Today.) While this time would prove financially lucrative for McConaughey, and many rom-com devotees saw no issue in his chosen work, he didn’t command the crossover respect from the critical establishment enjoyed by, say, a Brad Pitt.
A tertiary appearance in 2008’s Tropic Thunder hinted at the path to the McConaissance that would span from 2011 to 2014. As talent agent Rick Peck, he repurposed his butter-smooth personality as something oilier and more unsavory, playing a knowing riff on the rascally-charmer type he’d originally made his stock-in-trade.
Offering a slant on the unflappable image he’d cultivated in Dazed and Confused and again as a dreamboat in Boys on the Side, his performances in the post-Tropic Thunder years would yield some of the most fascinating work in his filmography, and ultimately restore his former stature. He excelled at revealing the dark, broken parts concealed by the steely exteriors of the cowboy archetype.
The title character of 2011’s Killer Joe was a sociopath in a black 10-gallon hat, while the eponymous role of 2012’s Mud hid a lifetime of regret behind McConaughey’s piercing gaze and molasses drawl. As Dallas in 2012’s Magic Mike, he’s playing an outsize parody of masculinity who knows he’s a parody, just as hip to the artifice of the whole good-ol’-boy act as we are.
Hollywood loves a comeback narrative, and McConaughey delivered. The first component of his two-pronged, 2013 return to the mainstream from the indie outskirts was a tour de force on True Detective as a desiccated husk of his usual form. The expanded canvas of HBO’s miniseries gave him ample room for image rehabilitation, allowing him to reintroduce himself as an intense actor unafraid to plumb some dark depths.
That same year, he also went for the Academy jugular with his turn as Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club. The true story of a homophobe reformed by his own AIDS diagnosis had all the trappings of an awards-caliber showing: a topical angle, a historical basis, a clear character arc with lots of room for highlight-reel monologuing. It worked, too. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor — and his career is only now recovering.
The McConaissance buzz led its subject astray
When an actor sweeps the awards circuit, the unspoken reward is that they get their pick of the auteur litter as big-name directors line up for the privilege of collaboration. As he basked in the post-Oscar glow, it made sense that McConaughey would take high-profile gigs with past award-winners such as Gus Van Sant and box office mainstays like Christopher Nolan. But the years in the wake of his new acclaim were studded with bad bets, films that affected the appearance of prestige without following through on quality.
With the marked exception of his poignant 2014 Interstellar performance, McConaughey spent this four-year period moping through plodders that stifled his charisma. Van Sant’s 2015 film The Sea of Trees sullied the “suicide forest,” sending McConaughey into Aokigahara as a ponderous and mildly insufferable man who finds the will to live via helpful Japanese ghosts.
In 2016, Gary Ross’s Free State of Jones likewise missed the mark, saddling McConaughey with a Confederate-turned-abolitionist white savior narrative and the haunted visage to match. That same year, McConaughey sported a combover and girthy paunch to play a modern-day prospector in Stephen Gaghan’s Gold, but a flimsy script hobbled the lead performance. He made a lunge at blockbuster glory with the big-ticket Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower in 2017, but the self-fashioned franchise was dead-on-arrival.
They all faceplanted with critics and ticket-buyers alike, calling McConaughey’s cachet into question. (The less said about his vocal contribution to 2016’s execrable animated film Sing, the better.) As a good-for-nothing small-time gun-runner in 2018’s White Boy Rick, McConaughey showed a glint of his old hell-raising charms, but he’s only recently gotten back in sync with himself.
Films like The Sea of Trees, Free State of Jones, Gold, and White Boy Rick replicated and magnified the core imbalance of Dallas Buyers Club, giving McConaughey a seemingly meaty role without a film capable of sustaining it. They’d use the same mannered, lumpy humorlessness as a stand-in for depth, unaware that the key appeal of fast-living Ron Woodruff was how he reminded us a bit of the man playing him.
America responded to Woodruff and True Detective’s Rust Cohle because they were distinctly McConaughey roles — hard-drinking, devil-may-care men of the south — that allowed him to play against type, creating something new, bracing, alienating, and captivating.
For some actors, success can be its own obstacle
McConaughey made the same post-Oscar miscalculations as previous winners like Cuba Gooding, Jr. or Adrien Brody did. Namely that a good actor is a “serious” actor, and that serious acting is necessarily good acting. (Call it the Sullivan’s Travels delusion.) Six years out from his unexpected Supporting Actor win for Jerry Maguire, and Gooding was still trying to get awards-friendly vehicles like the horrifically miscalculated Radio off the ground.
Brody tried to refashion himself as a blander sort of leading man by playing action-hero for Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and while the film was a hit, a forgettable performance contributed to him falling out of favor with the arbiters of cinematic taste who once celebrated him. Many actors experience this as a phase they then snap out of; there’s a direct line to be drawn between Brie Larson taking the Oscar for Room and the lamentable, somber-faced adaptation of The Glass Castle she signed on for shortly afterward. (She has since bounced back in a big way, albeit by diverting toward the Marvel blockbuster route.)
Success can leave a person mixed-up about how they achieved it. Box-office domination rerouted the career of Chris Pratt; an idiot-puppy-dog energy made him unique in Parks and Recreation and again in Guardians of the Galaxy, but films like the critically savaged Passengers and the flagging Jurassic World franchise sanded that quality down in the interest of making him broadly palatable to the widest audience possible. McConaughey has the experience and smarts to know how to pull out of this tailspin simply by being himself.
McConaughey’s at his best when he’s cutting loose, exploring the weird spontaneity of his acting style, getting in touch with his physicality and rhythms of language. And for the first time in years, Serenity and The Beach Bum give him that outlet to do so. He moves through the roles of Baker Dill and Moondog like liquid silver, untouchable and constantly changing shape.
They’re low-stakes performances that find brilliance by refusing to look for it, discovering along the way that just chilling can foster genius of its own. They’re too outré to drum up much awards talk, with too many odd angles and frayed ends. But that’s the McConaughey way, in its best and purest form. If he does things that only make sense within the confines of his addled brain, don’t worry about it, at least he knows what he’s doing. At last, McConaughey has resubscribed to the Tao of alright, alright, alright.