Although many may be more acquainted with the sight of his nipples than his face, 42 year-old US actor Matthew McConaughey has actually had a rather varied career. Yes, a lot of his performances involve plenty of flesh-flashing, a slow Texan drawl and not much else, but McConaughey’s projects released so far this year, The Paperboy and Jeff Nichols’ Mud, are hopefully indicative of him taking parts in better-penned drama than that of many of his previous films.
Many actors are afraid of being pigeon-holed into one character type, and focussing solely on McConaughey’s most high-profile films may cause him to be perceived in this way. It’s true that he has played a string of arrogant handsome men, often appearing as the lead in lame rom-coms such as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.
So prominent are McConaughey’s pecs in such films that Empire magazine once ran an ‘investigation’ into the amount of screentime McConaughey has spent shirtless since he began to gain recognition in the early ‘90s. In Surfer, Dude (2008) he racked up a whopping 30 minutes of bare-shirtedness. But then again, this was a surf movie.
More interesting, and perhaps more surprising, is the number of more ‘serious’ films which include chest cameos. Among this number are 1997’s Contact, John Grisham adaptation A Time to Kill, and legal drama The Lincoln Lawyer. It seems that if an actor is considered attractive, their skin will be bared whether or not it’s necessary to the plot.
But it’s unfair, objectifying and incredibly reductive to suggest this is all McConaughey is good for. Although he can be rather wooden, works with a lot of sub-standard material and frequently plays unlikeable characters, McConaughey can draw a laugh shirted or unshirted.
For example, in 2006’s Failure to Launch (in which ab-flashing is kept to a minimum) McConaughey appeared as Tripp, an unfathomably arrogant rich and successful man, who despite being in his thirties, is still living with his parents. Really, Tripp is horrible; his mother still does his laundry and he wouldn’t know a mop from an iron. But McConaughey’s easy confidence makes him into the man you love to hate. And despite the formulaic boy-meets-girl plot just barely dressed as something else, Failure to Launch is an enjoyable and witty film.
McConaughey may not be starring in films which will live on to be hailed as classics, or racking up notable awards, but I feel poor and unimaginative material is often at least partially to blame.
In last year’s Magic Mike, directed by Steven Soderbergh, McConaughey had top billing as Dallas, the owner of an all-male strip club. But sadly, Dallas is a half-hearted character who is constantly sidelined by the focus on protagonist Mike (Channing Tatum) and strip newcomer ‘the Kid’ (Alex Pettyfer). Even when he does appear he’s never quite threatening or crazed enough (for proof of McConaughey’s capability in this department we must look to Killer Joe). But when Dallas finally climbs on stage it’s difficult not to respect the bravery of this particular scantily-clad performance.
Soderbergh’s film marks a sort of mid-way point between the extremes of McConaughey’s career; it is more than just a predictable romp, but not much more. It aims for high-stakes drama but never really convinces.
The Guardian have proclaimed McConaughey’s work in Mud the finest of his career, and it’s already been much lauded at Cannes film festival, so perhaps he has finally found a role which combines sporadic toplessness with writing less shallow than some of his admirers.