The McConaughey Mystery: King of Hunks

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McConaughey (center) making trouble with his shirt on in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

The obligatory Matthew McConaughey scene — as crucial to his fans as a Miley Cyrus song or a Seth Rogen penis joke is to theirs — is the ritual removing of his shirt, to reveal a torso that could have been sculpted, or certainly caressed, by Michelangelo. The gesture is not so much an act of narcissism as a votive offering to his core constituency. A showman as much as an actor, McConaughey is ready to give the people what they want; and abs make their hearts grow fonder. (TIME Ponders: The Making of Matthew)

It is a failure, though not the central one, of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which opened yesterday to largely libelous reviews, that the star stays dressed for nearly the first hour. In this update of A Christmas Carol (drably directed by Mean Girls' Mark Waters, written by the guys who did last winter's insufferable holiday comedy Four Christmases), McConaughey plays Connor Mead, a glamour photographer with an eye for philandering. After breaking up with three girls "in bulk," over a video conference call, he goes to his brother's wedding weekend, re-wounding his old inamorata (Jennifer Garner) while causing about as much domestic havoc as Anne Hathaway did in Rachel Getting Married, and with the same low entertainment payoff. This alpha dog is a baaad Connor; Scrooge-like, he must be visited by three spirits who will show him the error of his ways...

...which are the very sins of flirtation and desertion McConaughey has displayed in the movies that made him famous: How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Fool's Gold, both with Kate Hudson; The Wedding Planner, with Jennifer Lopez; Failure to Launch, with Sarah Jessica Parker. These fluffy films earned no awards, no critics' raves — nothing but healthy box-office numbers; How to Lose a Guy broke $100 million domestic. So somebody must love McConaughey. In Ghosts, one woman says of him, "He's all surface," and another observes, "But a really hot surface." That surface has made McConaughey, 39, the monarch of a tiny, neglected kingdom: the romantic comedy.

In this realm there are no pretenders; for this is a movie age when the all-male bro-mance is like the Soviet Union of genres (action-adventure being the U.S. of A.). Given the dominant zeitgeist, few actors would be caught dead trying to appeal to women. McConaughey not only consents, he does it with a cheerful grace, as if he actually enjoys appearing in crappy films that lure the ladies. When Ghosts of Girlfriends Past opened last night — earning a decent $6 million, but nowhere near X-Men Origins: Wolverine's $35 million — it performed best among Females Over 25. In that demographic, McConaughey ranks high, up there with Pilates, Jodi Picoult novels and The View.

They used to be known as date movies, but only women would use that designation now; for guys they're more like bondage, and not the fun kind. The average guy hates or dismisses McConaughey movies because they'll require him to sit with his girlfriend through 100 minutes of extreme rendition, then endure her reproach that he's not nearly so cute, buff or romantically attentive as the hunk on screen. Men hate a ladies' man, a species of which McConaughey may be the last, best example. He speaks in silkily modulated tones, carries himself with a lithe sexual assurance and, at the end of movies where he's played the restless tiger, gives big emotional speeches about the need for two people to be one. "Lock him up!" guys say. (See pictures of teen hunk Zac Efron.)

But enough women reply, "Strap him on!" to make McConaughey veneration a niche industry. Every Matt fan knows MMcC's M.O.: dated Ashley Judd, Sandra Bullock and Penelope Cruz; has a 10-month-old son by his Brazilian girlfriend Camila Alves; was questioned by the police for playing bongo drums in the nude; rescued pets after Hurricane Katrina; was named People's Sexiest Man Alive in 2005 and one of the magazine's Hottest Bachelors a year later; serves as spokesman for the beef industry ("Beef: It's What's for Dinner"); runs a clothing line, and a children's foundation, called j.k. livin, after his life motto "Just keep livin'"; and doesn't use deodorant or cologne — but we'll bet he could market his musk.

"The older you do get," he said in his breakout movie, the 1993 indie comedy Dazed and Confused, "the more rules they're gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin' man, L-I-V-I-N." That edict has nurtured McConaughey from his early prominence, in the John Grisham drama A Time to Kill, through some ragged adventure sagas (the arid Sahara) to a welcome cameo as Ben Stiller's agent in Tropic Thunder. As McConaughey scholar (and my niece) Diana White tells me, he's more than the sum of dimples and muscles. But anybody can be an actor; it's tough to be an icon. McConaughey sustains his status by bantering effortlessly with Jay Leno, spoofing himself in a Sex & the City episode and, in general, hammering home the impression that the genial fellow we see in movies is close to the down-home Texan he may well be.

Why is McConaughey a movie star? Because he gets a significant number of people to pay to see him in dreck. And Ghost of Christmas Past is down there with the worst. Its deficiencies are too severe to bother tearing apart: Connor's short, charisma-deficient brother (Breckin Meyer) who comes from a totally other gene pool, if not gene planet, than his studly sib; cinematography that makes everyone except McConaughey look ugly (the same artless deglamorizing recently evident in 17 Again and State of Play); hapless guest appearances by Michael Douglas and Anne Archer, who must have wished they were back in Fatal Attraction; a background score comprising random samples of a Lite-FM playlist; and enough gaffes of plot and atmosphere to make you wonder if anyone was watching while the picture was being made.

But the film's singular stupidity is that it presents as reprehensible all those traits — smooth talk, adventurous spirit and short romantic attention span — that McConaughey's core audience loves him for. They want him to play what he seems to be: a Doctor McDreamy who makes house calls, lays gentle, knowing hands on the patient, then moves on to his next erotic appointment. Sure, his fans can imagine for a second that he will settle down with them as he does at the end of his movies with Lopez or Hudson or Parker or Garner. But he'll have to leave them to woo the co-star of his next project. That's show business. That's romance, Matthew McConaughey-style.

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