Matthew McConaughey: Rom-Com to All-Out Dram

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// WEEKEND

It’s hard to overlook Matthew McConaughey’s devilishly good looks, and it would be remiss to say that his chiseled features and Adonis-like golden locks haven’t had some sort of impact on his early career roles. But with his turn as a homophobic AIDS victim in “Dallas Buyers Club” making the critical rounds, we have to start realizing that McConaughey is much more than just a beautiful face. Rather, he is, without a doubt, a future Oscar winner.

After graduating with a degree in radio-television-film from the University of Texas, Austin, a young McConaughey modeled in various commercials before landing the role of a pervy David Wooderson in the cult hit “Dazed and Confused” in 1993. Three years later, he would give us a taste of what was to come with an utterly dramatic performance as Samuel L. Jackson’s defense attorney in the southern vigilante tale “A Time to Kill.” He followed this with supporting roles in other late-90s dramas, including Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.”

But after his breakout end to the millennium, he seemed to regress in the early half of the 2000s. Taking his dramatic acting chops for granted, Hollywood cast McConaughey in a string of unremarkable (though enjoyable and, more importantly, profitable) romantic comedies: “The Wedding Planner,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Failure to Launch” and “Fool’s Gold,” among others.

Throughout this period, McConaughey never stopped searching for those lead actor dramatic parts, with mixed results. “Sahara,” despite making a lot of money at the box office, failed to recoup more than half its expenses. “We Are Marshall,” though heartwarming at times, received mixed critical reviews. And very few of us (myself included) ever saw “Frailty” or “Thirteen Conversations” or “Tiptoes.”

McConaughey’s career really appeared to stall out towards the end of the decade. He appeared in another rom-com (“Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”) and had a hilarious supporting part in the smash hit “Tropic Thunder,” but he remained otherwise quiet for years.

While I may be overstepping myself here, McConaughey’s marriage around this time most likely started his career turnaround. I mean, I don’t have children (and hopefully won’t for a while), but there’s no denying that having a baby changes your outlook on life: Simply put, you just start to see things differently. It’s something that’s hard to notice in people, but you feel it personally. And I think McConaughey did, too.

With the birth of his third child, McConaughey has now embarked on a new chapter in his life, and his current slate of dramatic films proves as much, starting with “The Lincoln Lawyer” in 2011. He followed up this critical success with leading roles in “Killer Joe” and “The Paper Boy,” culminating this year with two profoundly great performances in the southern drama “Mud” and his most recent release “Dallas Buyers Club,” which is itself one of the best films of 2013 and could be McConaughey’s greatest performance to date.

It’s really these last two roles that have changed my perception of the one-time Sexiest Man Alive (2005). For a long time McConaughey was a pretty person mired in roles fit only for pretty people. But starting with “Mud,” in which he plays an escaped ex-convict trying to reconnect with the love of his life (played by Reese Witherspoon), we are beginning to see a more serious, Academy-worthy side of the Texan.

McConaughey’s good looks belie what is actually an actor of tremendous depth, and both “Mud” and “Dallas Buyers Club” prove this. Today’s McConaughey eschews of rom-com one-dimensionality — those characters who pine in humorous ways for the loves of their lives for 93 minutes straight. His latest characters, on the other hand, are compassionate individuals caught on the wrong side of society, struggling to carve a place for themselves without the support of the mainstream.

The new McConaughey is rugged, not gorgeous: still charming, but no longer suave or smooth. That’s not to say he should avoid the roles that helped launch him into fame, but this new arc is one of unlimited potential. He’s transcended his own norm and is becoming a dramatic jack-of-all-trades, making the sky his only limit. And if his latest two features are any indication, I don’t think it’ll be too tough for him to reach.

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