Matthew McConaughey's movie career hit the skids for the better part of the 2000s, with the mega-star taking on roles in a series of generic (albeit occasionally financially successful) rom-coms (Fool's Gold, Failure to Launch, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past), a quickly-forgotten Al Pacino sports-gambling drama (Two for the Money), a notorious big-budget flop (Sahara) and one totally inexplicable dud, the bizarre passion project that was Surfer, Dude. After spending the late '90s as one of Hollywood's premiere male sex symbols, America's favorite Texas golden boy hardly seemed to be trying anymore, and audiences responded in kind.
Then he came back! The McConaissance, as it came to be known, arrived early the following decade, when the actor began taking roles in actual good movies: The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Mud. Then came True Detective and his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club, the twin jewels in his comeback crown. After that, well-received turns in two extraordinary-successful blockbusters: Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. Following a decade spent in perpetual sun-drenched, occasionally bongo-accented shirtlessness on Malibu beaches, McConaughey was clearly serious about piloting his career again — and audiences responded in kind to that, too. Still, the question hovered: would we get him back permanently? Or was this just a flash-in-the-pan, Mickey Rourke-style comeback that he would fritter away with the kind of hollow cash-grabbing he exercised in the noughties?
More than one outlet has since written the McConaissance's epitaph, and I agree with their assessment: that starry-eyed period is over for him, and more than that, McConaughey is dangerously skirting the edge of self-parody these days. Not that he's stopped being serious, career-wise — he does, after all, have a fairly impressive slate on the horizon with roles in Stephen Gaghan's Gold and Nikolaj Arcel's adaptation of Stephen King's The Dark Tower — but McConaughey's self-seriousness is also a part of what grates about him as a persona. And from the sound of it, The Sea of Trees — which is currently out in limited release, though you wouldn't know it — only serves to amplify that perception thanks to a plot that's been described as “maudlin,” “wince-worthy” and even “amateurish” by reviewers. Which certainly isn't good news for the McConaughey brand.
Not helping matters, The Sea of Trees is an undeniable commercial flop too — the second for McConaughey after the slave-revolt drama Free State of Jones earlier this year. Vociferously booed at Cannes, the film is largely seen as a misstep for the floundering Van Sant as opposed to McConaughey, but it's nevertheless a black mark on the latter's terrific post-2010, which was so great that the backlash against him in hindsight was all but inevitable.
Here's how bad it is for The Sea of Trees, which expands to 100 theaters this weekend and also stars an allegedly-wasted Naomi Watts and Ken Watanabe (like the rest of humanity, I have not seen the film). Since opening on August 26, the drama, about a suicidal American who strikes up a friendship with a Japanese man in the Aokigahara forest, has grossed — are you ready? — $2,894 in two theaters since last Friday. No, that comma was not supposed to be a decimal point. The film's abject failure is also notable in that it's the latest release from A24, the upstart distributor that has become known for its ability to effectively market “difficult” films like this summer's The Lobster, March's divisive period horror film The Witch, Alex Garland's thinking-person's A.I. flick Ex Machina and David Robert Mitchell's languid spook-fest It Follows, one of last year's biggest sleepers. Clearly, not even a company with the kind of sharp marketing instincts as A24 could save the likes of The Sea of Trees.
It's probably not fair to call this McConaughey's biggest flop, though it's certainly one of his biggest, with a reported budget of $25 million and a final box office tally that will be lucky to reach $100K. Believe it or not, it has been worse for the star, at least when you look at the pure numbers. Free State of Jones, for example — whose reviews, while not great, weren't nearly as tepid as those for The Sea of Trees — grossed $30 million less than its $50 million budget. Meanwhile, 1999's EdTV, which suffered greatly in comparison to Jim Carrey's similar The Truman Show from the previous year, was also a major dud, grossing just $35 million worldwide on a bizarrely-inflated $80 million budget. Needless to say, McConaughey has had his share of flops (did I mention Sahara?).
But The Sea of Trees pulls double-duty as both a critical and financial failure of the kind we rarely see in mainstream filmmaking (call it this decade's Surfer, Dude), and its frankly embarrassing performance thus far stands out all the more for coming on the heels of such a stellar run of films. Anyone would be foolish to count McConaughey out at this point given what's he's got forthcoming, but of this I have no doubt: the McConaissance is definitely over.