Credit: Glen Wilson

Matthew McConaughey, as a Tampa strip-club owner-manager named Dallas, spends a lot of time in Magic Mike giving tips and pep talks to his team of on-stage stripper-studs. Instructing Adam (Alex Pettyfer), the new kid on the block, in some of the basic moves, as the two look into the mirror of a workout gym, he shows him how to tease the women in the audience, with slow grinds that grow more and more seductive (if that’s the right word to use for gestures that make it look like someone’s pantomiming a porn film), until, at last, the time arrives to deliver the money shot, a pure hard thrust of the crotch — bam! — that leaves no room for suggestion. Dallas, narrating his own sinewy movements, lets us know that he’s done all of this a hundred thousand times before, and that it’s pure performance, but also how much he relishes the sheer sexy works-every-goddamn-time effectiveness of it, the incredible control it gives him. Late in the movie, he gets up on stage at the Xquisite Male Dance Revue, and he makes good on his lessons. He puts on a mesmerizing strip show, with just the right move for every moment. He’s like a cowboy who’s his own bucking bronco. Yet as you watch his knowing, serpentine maneuvers, you can see that one reason Dallas is so good at this stuff is that he’s been doing it longer than forever.

In Magic Mike, Matthew McConaughey has deeply tanned, creased skin and the waxed chest and sculpted muscle tone of a guy who works on his body round the clock, and has for decades. Even what Dallas is wearing — a black leather vest and S&M leather armband — seems not so much a girl-toy costume as an extension of his basic leathery nature. Dallas, you see, is a great stripper, but one who long ago graduated to the role of coach. And that, in a way, is a metaphor for what McConaughey is doing in this movie: In Magic Mike, he’s no longer a leading man. He’s become a character actor, the magnificently preserved yet spiritually gone to seed Older Guy; implicit in the movie’s scheme is that he’s handing off the reins of stardom to Channing Tatum. Yet McConaughey, I dare say, has never been a better actor than he is in Magic Mike. And maybe that’s because he was really a character actor all along — a classic case, in fact, of a character actor stuck in a leading man’s body. He is now 42 years old, but in an overly youth-fixated Hollywood, time hasn’t simply caught up with him. It may, at last, have set him free.

A lot of us first noticed him in Dazed and Confused (1993), where he had a role so small that he was barely part of the ensemble. Yet who could ever forget Wooderson, the “older” dude in greasy sun-bleached hair and an icky little sardine of a ’70s mustache — McConaughey was all of 23 at the time — who had one of the film’s defining moments when he said, with consummate grinning pleasure and ease: “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.” The essence of Matthew McConaughey is in that line: the blissed-out myopic narcissism, the feeling that life is his oyster and wouldn’t it just be fantastic if you shared it? The beauty of the line, of course, is that it’s basically true, except that what Wooderson doesn’t know is that getting older and chasing teenagers in halter tops is not going to look so good on him in a few years.

Dallas, in Magic Mike, could be Wooderson a couple of decades later. But there have been a lot of roles in between — and frankly, at a certain point, after enjoying his work in movies like A Time to Kill (1996) and U-571 (2000), I began to notice that I was growing tired of Matthew McConaughey. His cornball self-confidence, though it was obvious that he was laying it on a bit thick on purpose, was never quite satirical enough to detract from the suspicion that McConaughey enjoyed his own self — the musical drawl, the sparkle in the eyes, the way that he said words like “Ladies!” — a little too much. Right around the time that I was starting to find him, for all his talent, a little cloying, he became the new romantic comedy It Boy, and most of the romcoms he starred in were so bad that I could never figure out if he was adding to the awfulness or if he was just the victim of appalling scripts. Yet movies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), Failure to Launch (2006), and the particularly egregious Fool’s Gold (2008) almost seemed to have been designed to tease out McConaughey at his most self-adoringly one-note. These movies made him seem not just bland but smarmy. His infamous tabloid moment, when he was caught playing bongos in the nude by Austin police who arrested him on a marijuana charge, was a classic case of an anecdote that sticks not because it’s so scandalous, but because it seemed to sum up McConaughey with such embarrassing perfection. Playing bongos in the nude! All by himself! That’s just what his acting was starting to look like.

The beauty of his performance in Magic Mike is that he is finally — finally! — Wooderson all grown up, and that means that the drawling, glittery-eyed, the South will rise again and it looks like me! self-satisfaction is no longer just a trivial form of self-delusion. It now has a dark side, since Dallas, as McConaughey plays him, is really a rather insidious con artist, a guy who comes on like the party-hearty ringleader who’s got everyone’s back, and who just wants his “boys” to have a good ol’ time getting laid and getting dollar bills stuffed into their buttless chaps. But really, there’s something he’s not telling them. When you come down to it, Dallas is a pimp, peddling other people’s flesh for money, and McConaughey’s brilliance in the role is that he makes him a shiny happy pimp, spreading good vibes, even as he’s exploiting the people he claims to care about. He’s setting up a new club in Miami, and he talks about it like a pot of gold, but it’s not just that he won’t offer Tatum’s Mike the equity stake that Mike thinks he deserves. When Mike questions him, the real Dallas comes out — the pimp who keeps his boys in line not with violence but with verbal bitch-slaps. And he’s kind of scary, because you realize that the ingratiating soft voice, the dimpled smiles, the friendly surface — the whole Matthew McConaughey-ness of it all — is now a mask. And what’s beneath it is a little sinister, because as Dallas knows better than anyone, the club he runs is a meat grinder, and his boys may be “stars,” but they’re also hamburger. And Dallas is the one doing the grinding.

Magic Mike, though well-liked by critics, and now officially a hit, is probably too breezy and fun and shameless an entertainment to figure in much at awards time. Channing Tatum has now proved himself a potentially major movie star, but I don’t see him copping a lot of Best Actor buzz, and much as I celebrate Steven Soderbergh figuring out how to make the outré film he wanted to make and — mostly by not trying — turning it into a mainstream success besides, I seriously don’t believe that this sassy beefcake fable is going to win him the kind of end-of-the-year acclaim that Traffic did. But Matthew McConaughey? I would say that he’s a genuine contender for Best Supporting Actor nods, from both critics’ groups and the Academy. And that’s because he does something in Magic Mike that’s at once audacious and shrewd: He plays the Matthew McConaughey we all know too well — and shows us that we didn’t really know him at all.

So what did you think of Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike? Is it his best role? Or just his best role in a while? And what’s your all-time favorite McConaughey performance?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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Magic Mike
  • Movie
  • 112 minutes