In 1993, a tiny Universal Pictures high school stoner movie called Dazed and Confused launched the careers of the two most polarizing movie stars of the fall 2014 movie season: Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck. Are they, or have they ever been, good actors? Let’s discuss.
Who could have predicted that the guy playing O’Bannion, the creepy fifth-year senior who loved paddling incoming freshmen boys, and the dude playing Wooderson, the mustachioed twenty-something with a hankering for high school girls, would be the most critically-acclaimed actors launched from the deep bench of Richard Linklater’s little cult hit?
It hasn’t been a steady path to greatness for Matthew McConaughey or Ben Affleck in the 22 years since the release of Dazed and Confused. Their weird career arcs took nosedives at some point around the beginning of the new millennium, after starting out strong — McConaughey in A Time To Kill, Contact and Amistad, Affleck in Chasing Amy, Shakespeare in Love, and possibly Armageddon. (Yes, I liked Armageddon, damn it, and there’s a reason it has its own Criterion Collection DVD.)
However, anyone who claims that they would re-watch Forces of Nature (Affleck), Pearl Harbor (Affleck), How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days (McConaughey), Gigli (Affleck), Jersey Girl (Affleck), Sahara (McConaughey), and Failure To Launch (McConaughey) is straight-up lying. When you churn out consistently awful, pandering work that might yield a nice profit but ultimately turns off everyone but the diehard McConaughey/Affleck believers, you will suffer the consequences.
Some of these films were successful among the general public. Others were spectacular flops (most notably Gigli, which was so bad it ruined its director’s career). All of them were terrible, terrible movies that have not aged well.
By 2010, Affleck and McConaughey were wallowing in relative movie star stasis, the quality of their movies having finally, mercifully stalled their career momentum.
Six years ago, McConaughey was more notable for nude bongo-drum jamming and jogging with his dope-free best friend Lance Armstrong than for anything he did onscreen.
Suddenly, starting in 2011, he started making decidedly non-commercial choices with decidedly auteur directors, basically playing demented permutations of himself in Mud, Killer Joe, Bernie, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Dallas Buyers Club, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar.
Up until four years ago, Ben Affleck was a great-chinned punchline — Matt Damon’s hometown buddy who confoundingly failed his way upwards into movie stardom (and somehow co-wrote Good Will Hunting). It wasn’t till 2010’s The Town, which he directed and starred in, that he was taken seriously as a Hollywood player (he had made the critically-acclaimed, little-seen Gone Baby Gone as a preamble to this three years earlier). The Town was great — a taught, riveting Boston crime drama, with brilliant performances from Jeremy Renner and Rebecca Hall. Affleck himself was serviceable but ultimately unremarkable as the nominal lead.
In 2012, Affleck directed, produced and starred in Argo — a wildly overrated “important movie” that was nevertheless competent enough to yield critical accolades, eight Oscar nominations, huge international box-office dollars and a win for Best Picture. Affleck, as usual, sleep-walked through his performance.
Which leads us to 2014. McConaughey and Affleck star in two of the most buzzed-about movies of the young fall season. McConaughey’s Interstellar just cruised into a $50 million first weekend at the box office and nabbed a 73% “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the web’s leading movie review aggregate. Affleck’s Gone Girl is holding steady, after five weeks in theaters, it came in at #3 on this weekend’s box office chart, right behind the brand-new Interstellar. Its weekend-to-weekend holds are relatively uncharted territory for a wide opening (2000+ theaters) in the modern Hollywood movie release window, and it’s nabbed an 88% Certified Fresh rating in Rotten Tomatoes. Gone Girl has already taken in $145 million domestically.
If nothing else, McConaughey and Affleck’s re-emergence at the top of the movie star food chain reminds us that taking risks in independent, lower budget and otherwise “serious” movies can pay off in a huge way. Are they, as actors, really any different than they were when we met them, so many years ago? No. They can only play different strains and iterations of themselves, McConaughey the good ol’ Texas boy and Affleck the endearing Beantown knucklehead.
Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan, is a visual marvel, and despite some clunky pseudoscience and perfunctory dialogue, it stands as a comprehensively-plotted movie that clicks emotionally. David Fincher’s Gone Girl is a gorgeous, terrifically-edited sex thriller that evokes Hitchcock and the old ’80s/’90s Michael Douglas romps while simultaneously offering ludicrous, pseudo-Kubrickian satirical commentary on the watcher and the watched in our 24-hour media cycle age. Does Interstellar make you forget Failure To Launch? Does Gone Girl forever eradicate the memory of Daredevil? Of course not. Don’t be silly.
As they enter their 40’s, Affleck and McConaughey are comfortable taking risks with the material they perform in. While they themselves are still pretty mediocre actors, they are elevated by the company they’ve kept in front of and behind the camera.
So, yes, they still aren’t particularly great actors. And yes, they love themselves a bit more than is proportionally warranted. But they mutated into Academy Award-winning talent, and they intend to stay there for as long as possible. Next up for McConaughey is Sea of Trees, directed by Gus Van Sant (that association worked out well for Affleck). Benny from the Block is, of course, our next Batman. It just better be nothing like this: