He's been an ex-Navy officer turned treasure hunter, a space pilot, an AIDS patient, a drug-fueled stock broker, and of course, the guy who gets older while all the girls stay the same age—he's Matthew McConaughey.
Love him, hate him, or fall somewhere in between, there is no arguing that the guy with the thick Southern accent and leading man looks has left his mark on Hollywood, and by default, American culture. He's not the best actor, hell, he might not even make a lot of people's Top 10 lists but there is something special about McConaughey, or more specifically, the roles he's played in movies.
His characters have embodied everything from a creepy obsession with sex to the depths of human desperation to the heights of mankind's greatest hopes. All of these, when examined collectively, build a mismatched quilt with which we can view American culture in just a few hours time.
1. Greed and Excess
McConaughey's turn as the mentor to a young Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street is the perfect place to start.
From the way he orders his drinks to the rhythmic way he beats his chest, McConaughey is the more realistic Gordon Gekko. He is a casual drug user and an alcoholic with nice hair and a nicer $3,000 suit. He sees a young and naive man that he can take out to lunch and impress him with endless supplies of martinis and faux wisdom. He acts as if he's having the time of his life because he is having the time of his life. That is, until the bottom falls out and everyone at the firm loses their job. If this isn't a wonderful representation of how narcissistic and oblivious our culture can be, I don't know what is.
2. Desperation and Compassion
In Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey gives arguably the most heart-wrenching portrayal of an AIDS sufferer since Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. We watch throughout the film as a regular guy learns what it's like to truly hit rock bottom with no way out.
Although it might have been 20 years too late, the film brought a lot of attention to what is a sad fact of life for millions of people. McConaughey isn't too weepy or over-dramatic—he's dying. He's dying and he will do anything to stop the disease from taking him and the other AIDS patients that he eventually comes to help.
At the beginning of the film, he's a scumbag and a womanizer, and by the end, some could argue that he is still a scumbag. But, it does show that even the darkest of people can have moments of compassion and value.
3. Adventure and Action
In Sahara, McConaughey plays your typical charming and wisecracking American badass that we've all come to expect from our action-adventure movies. He's a former Navy-man, an intelligent treasure-hunter, and still manages to woo Penelope Cruz without even having to take off his shirt (even though he inevitably does take off his shirt.)
He's what the rest of the world thinks of when it's asked, "What does America think about itself?" And there's nothing wrong with that! Well... maybe there is a bit of a problem but it's not the worst problem to have.
We see ourselves as the people who can do it all by ourselves AND look good doing it.
4. Exploration and Hope
In his most recent big blockbuster, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, McConaughey's Cooper is the epitome of what America thinks it already is combined with what it should strive to be.
He wants to save everyone and doesn't care if he dies trying. He's talented and intelligent, but he had to practice and work hard to collect the knowledge that he does have. He loves his family and still chooses to reach out into the big and black depths of space just on the small chance that he might be able to save them and their kids from a horrible fate.
His character is a bit of a 'Mary Sue' but in a movie about hope and needing a savior, we let it slide—especially since the future that Interstellar portrays is a real possibility.