Some actors become famous for doing one thing, then spend the rest of their careers doing something completely different. Demi Moore's biggest role was as the dewy girlfriend in Ghost, but she followed that up by playing aggressive hardbodies in G.I. Jane, Striptease, and Disclosure. We grew to adore Kevin Spacey's sardonic wit in films like Swimming With Sharks, but after he reached his apex in American Beauty, Spacey misstepped with touchy-feely characters in Pay It Forward and K-PAX. And then there's Matthew McConaughey: Hailed as the second coming of Paul Newman with his breakout role as an earnest lawyer in A Time to Kill, it didn't take long for McConaughey to undermine that totally by presenting himself as an unserious, frequently shirtless ladies' man (both onscreen and off). This weekend, he'll try to recapture that initial promise as a shady attorney in The Lincoln Lawyer, but is it too late for McConaughey to reestablish himself as a real actor? To find out, we spoke to industry insiders to answer the question: If Matthew McConaughey were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?
Stock History: 1996's A Time to Kill established McConaughey as a leading man after supporting turns in Lone Star and Dazed and Confused, but aside from the successful Contact the following year, few of his follow-ups (including Amistad, The Newton Boys, Reign of Fire, and EDtv) delivered on that box-office promise. By the time he starred opposite Kate Hudson in 2003's How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, both actors were seen as next-big-things who'd never quite fulfilled their potential ... and then that movie became a smash.
Suddenly a full-blown comedic star instead of a dramatic actor, McConaughey continued to give the people what they clamored for. Like him in rom-coms? Then here's Failure to Launch, Fool's Gold, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past! Do you consider him the Sexiest Man Alive, as People did in 2005? Then surely you won't mind if he airs out his pecs for the paparazzi on a regular basis! And hey, what about that beachy surfer tan — cool, right? If you love that, you'll love him even more when he's orange. Some leading men are determined to stretch from film to film, but McConaughey saved those stretches for his workouts and embraced populism instead.
Market Value: In the romantic-comedy genre, McConaughey is a solid performer who grosses within the $50 to $100 million range, though in a worrisome development, each rom-com has grossed successively less than the last: Since How to Lose a Guy's $105 million, his next four romantic comedies dropped by about $15 million each time. Still, in a waning market for the genre, he outdraws most of his female competition. Other recent efforts haven't fared as well: The big-budget Sahara couldn't crack $70 million, while We Are Marshall and Two for the Money were disappointments.
Peers: Runs with Keanu Reeves (46), Mark Ruffalo (43), Russell Crowe (46), Will Smith (42), and Bradley Cooper (36) — but having been on a bit of a cold streak, "he runs behind all of them."
What Hollywood Thinks: "Yeah, he is behind all those guys, but he's a rugged leading guy who can also do a bit of comedy, and that's extremely rare," says one high-powered agent. "In that respect, you could say he's like a Brad Pitt or a George Clooney — except that he's willing to do a commercial movie, whereas they, for the most part, are not. Would I spend money on him? I would not; in fact, I might actively avoid anything he's in. But would I sign him? In a second! In a fucking second I would! Because while he's 'commerce,' he's also, well, commerce: He does that middlebrow stuff so well, and it plays huge in the red states. For some yutz in South Carolina, anything he's in is their first choice at the Redbox."
One of the talent managers we spoke to is a little harsher: "I just happen to not respond well to him. I think that his career has journeyed as far as the talent has allowed for. I don't know that there are any lessons that could be delivered to him, because I suspect he might have an incredibly astute understanding of who he is and how he's regarded. He might not think there's any problem to fix. So, will he transcend what he's known for? I doubt that will happen. But he's so well-established, he'll remain an entity for as long as he wants."
"I don't think 'movie star' has to equate with 'great actor,'" argues a top publicist. "He reminds me of Meg Ryan a long time ago: 'Isn't he our romantic-comedy guy?' I'm not sure that it's fair, but I don't know if people want to see him expand his chops. He's very marketable in a romantic comedy."
Still, if McConaughey is serious about going serious (and his next role in The Dallas Buyer's Club, where he plays an AIDS-afflicted medicine smuggler, indicates a shift away from comedy), he should begin revamping his image in the place where he's seen most often: magazines. "He'd need to start doing photo shoots and interviews that are less 'pretty,'" suggests the publicist. "I'd have him work with a gritty photographer like Anton Corbjin. You'd want to see the lines around the eyes. You put that out there to convey an image of someone who's strong, rugged, as opposed to 'glossy-pretty.' You'd couple it with an interview that's film-oriented. To change perception, you'd need to start to talk about filmmakers and actors you admire, and talk about it in a way that it's clear that it's something you study and care about, that you have a sense of history of it."
The Analysis: When McConaughey was arrested in 1999 for playing bongos in the nude while stoned, it was jarring, since he'd just come off of serious films like Amistad and Contact. If he was busted for the same today, however, no one would bat an eye. It's a sign of just how much McConaughey has transformed himself in the public eye over the last decade — and maybe even an encouraging sign that it's always possible to change back, if he wants to.
Because here's the thing: He's actually quite good in The Lincoln Lawyer. Employing his natural charisma to make an unsavory character someone you can actually root for, McConaughey delivers a star turn and a dramatic performance. It's pulp, for sure — no matter how well-cast the movie's ensemble is, it's not exactly Michael Clayton — but it's the most compelling McConaughey has been in years. It's possible, with Lincoln Lawyer, Dallas Buyer's Club, and a reunion with his Dazed and Confused director Richard Linklater (in the dark comedy Bernie) on the way, that Hollywood's most famous beach bum has finally put on a suit and grown up.
"It's a challenge for guys who are so handsome," says the publicist. "But you start by saying no to the things where they want you to be 'just pretty.' You don't do it with an inside profile in Glamour or by taking your shirt off in Men's Health. Clooney tried to get out from under the beefcake. He's done a great job. It's all 'I want to be doing good work.'"
The Bottom Line: Lionsgate would be thrilled if Lincoln Lawyer made even as much as one of McConaughey's lower-grossing rom-coms, but if it tanks, will the 41-year-old get cold feet and retreat from his foray into indie dramas?
"He's clearly a very gifted, very capable actor," the agent allows. "His best role yet was A Time to Kill, but he hasn't gone back for that sort of stuff. When he produced something, it was that stupid stoner-surfer movie [2008's Surfer, Dude]. He seems very content with his life, so maybe he's just happy where he is. It's just kind of a shame, because it's really wasted potential."