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Star Market: Bourne Free, and With a String of Well-Reviewed Flops Behind Him, What Are Matt Damon’s Prospects?

Everybody likes Matt Damon. He’s a good actor with good taste who has his personal life in order, never says the wrong thing, keeps excellent professional company, and has appeared in any number of enjoyable and interesting films. Hollywood likes him, guys like him, girls like him, grandmas like him, Liz Lemon likes him. But as well-established and well-liked as he is, Damon’s career is at a crossroads. The 40-year-old has officially tossed off the rudder that’s been keeping it on an even keel: The fourth Bourne film will be made without Jason Bourne or Matt Damon, which may prove to be as risky a move for Damon as it is for the franchise. Damon hasn’t appeared in a non-Bourne related commercial hit since 2006’s The Departed. His last big-budget film, this year’s The Green Zone, was a huge flop. His upcoming The Adjustment Bureau, a thriller based on a Philip K. Dick story, has had its release date pushed from awards season to March, rarely a good sign. How long can Damon maintain his status by appearing in high-minded, prestige pictures, like this weekend’s Clint Eastwood directed Herafter, without Bourne’s box-office success to balance it out? We spoke to industry insiders to answer the question: If Matt Damon were a stock, should you buy, sell, or hold?

Stock History: Damon has been an A-Lister ever since his Oscar-winning triumph, 1997's Good Will Hunting, but his status hasn’t always been assured. While his partner Ben Affleck went for the blockbusters, Damon opted to pick starring roles with prestige directors (The Legend of Bagger Vance's Robert Redford, All the Pretty Horses's Billy Bob Thornton, The Talented Mr. Ripley's Anthony Minghella). While his acting was always praised, most of the films weren't, and none were commercial hits. Damon stayed afloat thanks to the Ocean’s Eleven film and the receding shine of being part of America’s favorite bromance.

His star was fading when his fortunes turned around with 2002’s The Bourne Identity, a surprise hit ($121 million) that gave Damon that rare thing: a successful franchise. (Even rarer, it’s a franchise that has gotten more popular with each successive installment.) While some would have taken this opportunity to cash in and turn action star, Damon opted to continue to see out great directors. Though it took him a few years to get the hang of this (See: the Farrelly brothers' Stuck on You and Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm), since 2006 he’s collaborated with Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Stephen Soderbergh, and Clint Eastwood, twice. (And, of course, gamely appeared as the Carol the pilot on 30 Rock.) The results have varied from serious-minded successes (The Departed, Syriana) to serious-minded disappointments (The Informant!, Invictus), but given the company he’s keeping, even when he disappoints, he remains firmly entrenched in Hollywood’s upper echelon.

Peers: Damon runs with the big boys. Right now the only actors in his age range who see scripts before him are Brad Pitt, the most famous guy in the world, and Robert Downey Jr., who’s more likely to say yes. Damon, Leonardo Dicaprio, and Johnny Depp get next crack at everything, not so closely followed by the likes of Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Tobey Maguire.

Market Value: In the post-Bourne world, Damon’s hardly a box-office guarantee. The Informant! and Invictus (which earned Damon an Academy Award nod) were both critically well-received, but neither broke $40 million. Far more alarming, the big-budget ($100 million) action film The Green Zone, a.k.a. Bourne in Iraq, tanked, bringing in only $35 million domestically. If audiences won’t show up to see Damon in a movie directed by the guy who made the last two Bournes (Paul Greengrass), what will they show up to see him in? The oft-delayed The Adjustment Bureau doesn't seem promising, but it comes amid a roster of well-pedigreed projects: this winter’s Coen brothers Oscar candidate True Grit, as well as Stephen Soderbergh’s forthcoming, star-studded, there’s-a-virus-among-us thriller Contagion.

Offscreen, he has learned from his friend and frequent co-star George Clooney how to balance serious-mindedness about projects and personal social activism with self-mockery so as not to be rejected as a "typical Hollywood liberal." (Beware the lesson of Tim Robbins!) While he largely stayed tight-lipped about his private life (at least after his public breakup with Minnie Driver lo those many years ago), he's recently started to loosen up; with a non-actress wife and three kids (and a fourth on the way), he now jokes about his busy, relatively innocuous life, as opposed to turning stone-faced at even the hint of a personal question. This only endears him to Hollywood watchers more, as do his appearances in Jimmy Kimmel's "I'm Fucking Matt Damon" and his stint on 30 Rock. One publicist calls these spots the kind of “intelligent slumming" that signals to audiences that he's an affable, fun guy that “likes to have fun with his career.”

What Hollywood Thinks: Everyone likes this guy. An agent says, "I think Matt Damon’s career has been handled so brilliantly.” A manager echoes, “In terms of whom he’s chosen to make films with, it’s impeccable: The choices have always been filmmaker and material-driven.” A publicist rounds out the applause: “He’s so highly thought of. A lot of people in town love him, sure. But so does my mom, who’s a suburban 70-year-old moviegoer. And my brother, who’s a 40-year-old guy. Everyone feels good about the guy. He’s not afraid to do interesting projects.”

If the Bourne-less Damon finds himself in a bit of a precarious position, a manager points out it’s not for the first time: “He was in a pretty bad spot prior to The Bourne Identity, even though he’d worked with top directors like Robert Redford, Anthony Minghella, and Gus Van Sant. [The Bourne Identity director] Doug Liman was not really of that auteur ilk at the time. Not a name-brand director. The shoot was a total mess. Liman shot 5 million feet of film, the studio was freaked out the whole time. But against the odds, it worked.”

The one note of caution from insiders comes unintentionally, when that same manager talks about the Bourne franchise’s particular strengths, highlighting why it’s a bad property to walk away from: “Bourne is the ultimate in terms a franchise you actually want for a client: It’s a character-driven franchise, and so most of the credit goes to the lead actor. That’s what shoots him out of the cannon — because it’s not dependent on the intellectual property. Instead, you’re fascinated with his performance: Who he is, who he’s trying to be. You definitely need a franchise in the modern era [as an actor] so you can have a career that gives you some choice.”

Ten years ago, his recent string of low grossers would diminish his power, but today is a different world, where names on a movie poster don't mean what they used to. In the words of an agent, "Maybe he doesn’t guarantee an opening, but he makes a movie a ‘go.’ If you define ‘movie star’ as someone who opens a movie, then there are no movie stars anymore, except maybe Will Smith. But since almost no movie stars are opening movies, the definition of 'star' changes: Nowadays, a movie ‘star’ is someone who gets a movie made, and Damon definitely gets a movie made.” Says a manager, “If you see Matt Damon in a movie, it says, ‘good, classy, intelligent.’ He’s a movie star in that sense.”

The Analysis: At some point, Matt Damon is going to need another big hit if he’s going to retain the ability to green-light and audience adoration. But Damon’s been in the position before, and given how well-liked and regarded he is — plus the fact that his non-hits are well thought of Oscar contenders, not rep-damaging Nicholas Cage–style B movies — he should have the time he needs to find it. And, then, of course, should Damon’s taste, connections, and script-picking abilities somehow utterly fail him, there is always the Bourne option. The thing about walking away when you’re on top is, you can always come back. (Within reason: Sean Connery waited a bit too long to re-Bond for Never Say Never Again.) In all of the discussion of the fourth film, The Bourne Legacy, nobody, not the director Tony Gilroy, and not the studio Universal, has suggested that Damon couldn’t come back for a fifth movie. In fact, that Jason Bourne has not been recast for the fourth film can be read as a sign of just how seriously the studio wants Damon to return: They’re leaving the door open for him, even at the expense of the franchise. (What’s a Bourne movie without a Bourne?)

In other words, Damon has a safety net. He can continue as he is, mixing high-quality projects with more mainstream fare, without concern. If he gets more Oscar nominations, or finds another hit — possibly Soderbergh’s Contagion — maybe he can leave Bourne behind for good. If not, it awaits him, and he can parlay its success into another three to five years of making the films he wants to make with the people he wants to make them.

The Bottom Line: What’s the worst thing that will happen if Damon turns his back on Bourne and doesn’t find a comparable smash to replace it? He spends a few more years as a leading man working for great directors in underperforming but interesting films, and then, as he gets older and loses some of his audience, begins … taking on smaller, character parts for great directors in underperforming but interesting films? It could be worse. Besides, if in a decade things have gotten really dire, Damon can finally get around to polishing that second screenplay.

Buy/Sell/Hold: Buy. His future may not be clear, but it’s probably bright.