Could 2012 be a watershed moment in Matthew McConaughey's career?

Posted by · 12:08 pm · May 17th, 2012

Are you ready for the year of Matthew McConaughey? And did you ever think you’d read that sentence?

Yes, the heartthrob best known over the last decade for turns in dubious actioners, countless rom-coms and a naked bongo drumming episode is set to have a pretty sensational 2012. And not to diminish the actor. Even in all that sludge there have been sparks of that natural flair. But few would argue that McConaughey hasn’t been off on an irrelevant tangent since “Reign of Fire,” at the very least.

But this year — with two films set to bow next week at the Cannes Film Festival in Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy” and Jeff Nichols’ “Mud,” another in theaters already and two more on the way — the actor has saddled up to quality filmmakers for the first time in a while. Seemingly, he’s ready for a new, more meaningful phase of his career.

The seeds of this were evident in McConaughey’s hilarious portrayal of a dialed-in, energized Hollywood agent in Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder.” But the transition really seemed to click in last year’s “The Lincoln Lawyer,” a well-regarded Michael Connelly adaptation that might have stirred some consideration for the actor’s lead performance as a crafty, sleazy defense attorney had it been released later in the year.

This year, in addition to the aforementioned Daniels (following up 2009’s “Precious”) and Nichols (hot off last year’s indie standout “Take Shelter”), McConaughey finds himself under the helms of William Friedkin (“Killer Joe,” from laureled playwright Tracy Letts) and Steven Soderbergh (“Magic Mike,” closing this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival). Both films hit theaters this summer, and assuming “The Paperboy” and “Mud” land distribution out of Cannes, he’ll follow things up with another one-two punch in the fall.

Then there’s “Bernie,” Richard Linklater’s well-reviewed comedy featuring McConaughey’s turn as a charismatic Texas lawman, currently in theaters and highly successful in limited release thus far. And since TV is where it’s at these days, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “True Detective,” a Lousiana gumshoe series recently picked up by HBO featuring McConaughey alongside best buddy (and “Surfer Dude” co-star) Woody Harrelson. And speaking of TV, he also delivered one of the funniest moments of “Eastbound and Down” in the series finale earlier this year.

(Interestingly enough, Harrelson has also shifted gears a bit lately with, an Oscar nomination for his work in 2009’s “The Messenger,” loads of praise for last year’s “Rampart” and roles in HBO’s “Game Change,” box office juggernaut “The Hunger Games,” the recently wrapped “Seven Psychopaths,” from “In Bruges” director Martin McDonagh, and the currently filming “Out of the Furnace,” from “Crazy Heart” helmer Scott Cooper.)

McConaughey will be dipping back into iffy action territory with next year’s Simon West-directed “Thunder Run,” but after 2012, McConaughey could be in a unique position to work with talented people and leave some lasting impressions as he enters the next stage of his career. Assuming the upcoming films are worthy, he might even be a fixture of the awards season, which will do wonders for the industry and audience’s perspective of him.

I think McConaughey is a considerable talent. It’s been unfortunate to watch him wallow in paycheck territory for so long, knowing he hasn’t lost the touch — just maybe the desire to do something substantial. Since he first hit the scene in Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” nearly two decades ago (though the real coming out was three years later with turns in John Sayles’s “Lone Star” and Joel Schumacher’s “A Time to Kill”), McConaughey has exuded a confident swagger and an ability to craft memorable characters. He’s a guy I want to see on screen, a guy I want to succeed.

Maybe the kick in the butt he needed was from top-tier directing talent. Really, the last filmmaker of consequence he worked with was Ron Howard way back in 1999 (“EdTV”). And detractors of Howard can trace it back another two years if they like, to Steven Spielberg (“Amistad”) and Robert Zemeckis (“Contact”). That’s a pretty significant drought.

So fingers crossed for McConaughey that this is a watershed year for him. It certainly could be. And who doesn’t like a story like that?

“The Paperboy” premieres in Cannes next Thursday, May 24. “Mud” hits the following Saturday, May 26. Be sure to check back then for Guy Lodge’s reactions to each.

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