The esteemed Dr Mark Kermode, staunch advocate of The Exorcist and all-round berater of mediocrity seems to have moved on from calling Keira Knightley “Ikea” Knightley, however he insists on continuing to refer to Matthew McConaughey as Matthew Mahogany. It’s an unkind but effective and evocative sobriquet, instantly conjuring up inexpressiveness, predictability and, well, woodenness. Is the good Doctor right? Is Matthew all lumber, or has he got more than that to offer?
The danger here is that I paint myself into a corner by harping on about McConaughey’s earlier career, before conveniently ignoring the past several years of abysmal rom-com sub-mediocrity. If I am to defend him, surely I cannot pick and choose what I defend, but must defend his entire oeuvre? Can his body of work even be considered an oeuvre? Should I stop using silly words?
So, his whole body of work must fall into consideration, but that need not be wholly fatal to his case. I may be able to establish that the quality of his earlier work outweighs his later, less considered choices, or that his dire rom-com phase has not been the wash out it is usually treated as being. Let’s see what I can do.
For all meaningful intents and purposes, McConaughey’s career kicked off with The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the early 1990’s. Hardly the groundwork for a promising acting career, but frankly no basis on which to condemn the man. Pretty much everyone has a turkey or two in their back catalogue. No-one looks down their nose at George Clooney, Return of the Killer Tomatoes and Batman & Robin notwithstanding. Where did MM go from such illustrious beginnings? After a couple of bit parts, the impressive one-two of Lone Star and A Time to Kill. Few will have seen Lone Star, John Sayles’ masterful and ridiculously overlooked tale of buried secrets, but MM delivers a sterling performance as a Texas sheriff.
A Time to Kill was one of a slew of Grisham adaptations that sprung up at the time and although it was far from being as impressive a film as Lone Star, MM’s work was strong here again. Of course there were a few cliched courtroom standoffs, but the film covers uncomfortable territory with intelligence and MM was well-cast.
So far so good. MM then followed up with Contact, an intelligent and considered sci-fi film with good ideas and a solid cast. His character was far from central, but with all of the scientific consideration woven through the script, it was interesting to see spiritual aspects given something of an airing. Amistad was next, a very worthy and insightful Spielberg effort, with MM playing a lawyer struggling to piece together a compelling legal argument amidst some very complicated political and historical forces. His performance is excellent, all the more impressive given that he was up against Morgan Freeman and Sir Anthony Hopkins much of the time, manging to hold his own in such heavyweight company.
EdTV was next, giving MM a much-needed and well-deserved leading role. The film suffered comparison with The Truman Show, a far more intelligent and accomplished consideration of similar issued, but it is a good film in its own right and MM brings a natural charm and easy-going affability to the title role. At this point, it is beginning to feel like my job is done. Although I have skipped a few lesser roles, we can see a significant and impressive body of work here. Why then is McConaughey so berated? Why did Family Guy feel the need to pick on him? U-571 came next and although its scandalously revisionist history regarding the acquisition of the Enigma machine earned it some much warranted opprobrium, it’s difficult to fault MM’s work here either – solid, unflashy, engaging.
His next run though, is where problems start to arise. The Wedding Planner, Frailty, Reign of Fire, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Sahara, Two for the Money, Failure to Launch. Clearly his choices became worse, or at least lazier here. Not that this seven film sequence is entirely without merit. My wife quite likes The Wedding Planner and How To Lose a Guy.. and although that is no benchmark of quality, she is far from being a mindless consumer of banal chick flicks. Frailty is a fascinating film, far, far from the stereotypical McConaughey role and although neither Reign of Fire nor Sahara are anything to write home about, they are harmless fun, rather than the apocalypse-ushering travesties they are occasionally mistakenly described as.
I haven’t even seen Failure to Launch or Two for the Money, so I will happily concede that they are meritless turkeys. Hey, I can’t use films I haven’t seen to bolster my case – I will have to allow them to count against me. So where does that bring us to? We are Marshall, Fool’s Gold, Ghost of Girlfriend’s Past and The Lincoln Lawyer. Although there is nothing here that can stand comparison to Amistad, A Time to Kill, Frailty, Lone Star or EdTV, either in terms of overall quality, or McConaughey’s contribution, there are worse carbuncles on the bottom of cinemaland, greater blemishes on the copy-book of many an otherwise commendable actor.
That’s not to say that McConaughey can or should be defended on the basis that others are worse, or that some of his work is merely rubbish rather than spleen-rupturingly ghastly. But his overall body of work clearly contains enough quality to leave him out of the wheely-bin. Admittedly he has made poorer choices of late, bu there is no real “cut-off point” where everyhting went to pot, rather a recent gradual decline in quality, which, the defence would submit, is not enough on which to convict him. So, what say the jury?