A star who turned into a black hole somewhere between the release of, oh, The Wedding Planner and Sahara (or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Two for the Money -- really, where to draw the line), Matthew McConaughey is better known of late for shooting tequila with Oprah and runnin' around the sidelines of University of Texas football games like a cheerleader short a pom-pom. The onetime Vanity Fair cover boy, touted as the New Paul Newman the way singer-songwriters are hyped as the New Bob Dylan, has morphed not into a movie star but a celebrity punch line, and even then his fame has been obscured by one too many bong hits and paycheck gigs that land on Blockbuster shelves the Tuesday after a Friday release date. And while he may seem utterly charming and perfectly harmless -- the guy has all but become the all-right-all-right-all-right Wooderson character he played in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, in which McConaughey pined for high school girls who stayed the same age -- his presence in a movie doesn't exactly elicit anything resembling a vote of confidence.
But at long last he has chosen the perfect vehicle to highlight his slacker radiance: Failure to Launch, in which he plays the aptly named Tripp, a 35-year-old yacht salesman who still lives with his mommy (Oscar-winner Kathy Bates) and daddy (Super Bowl-winner Terry Bradshaw, literally showing his ass three freaking times). And not only does he still live in his old upstairs room, but Mom dotes on him like a newborn: She washes and folds all his clothes, makes him extravagant diner-quality breakfasts, and keeps the pantry stocked with all his junk-food faves. Tripp even uses the folks to break up with girls he feels are getting too attached: He brings them home for a night of foolin' around, then waits for Dad to barge in before springing the news he still lives at home. Works every time.
Or it does until he brings home Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker), who doesn't blanch at the sad news that her boyfriend's stuck in the groove that became a rut some 15 years ago. But that's only because Tripp's folks have hired Paula to woo their boy and lure him out of the nest; she's a paid girlfriend . . . fine, a whore, who eventually sleeps with Tripp, for his parents' dough, just to keep him from finding out she's not who he thinks she is.
It goes without saying that this is all played for light-headed laughs; Failure to Launch, directed by Shanghai Noon's Tom Dey, has all the gravity of a midseason-replacement sitcom. One can actually imagine the scenario in which this becomes a series: Each week, Paula collects a paycheck by dating a loser -- some comic-collecting fanboy, some D&D dork -- who still lives in his folks' basement and mooches off the kindness of kin.
But beneath the sitcom sheen lies a darker movie about extremely broken people who use convenient, pitiful excuses to keep from growing up and moving on. Tripp and Paula -- and Paula's roommate, Kit (played by the dour, deadpan Zooey Deschanel), who would prefer to kill a mockingbird outside her bedroom window than engage in a meaningful relationship -- are all so damaged, they would need years of therapy if this were an indie film and not some Hollywood hack work by the guy who made Showtime and a writer whose sitcom credits include stints on Grace Under Fire and Becker, ugh.
It would have been fascinating to see this same premise handled with a straight face; presumably it would have been crushed beneath the weight of despair these people schlep around with them like backpacks filled with boulders. The movie glosses over the reasons they've become stunted -- indeed, the explanations breeze by so quickly, they become a blur the movie's never interested in focusing on -- but doesn't diminish their ache either. You laugh at them, but also feel sympathy for them; these people need each other, at the very least, because no one else in the world would ever get them.
McConaughey comes by his callowness easily; he's Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in one ripped, baked body, and he's built his career on playing guys in over their pretty little heads. Parker has the harder job here: If Tripp's allowed to stumble through the movie, grinnin' his way through a freeloadin' life, Paula's forced to justify her rather sordid existence, first to Kit and finally to Tripp and his friends. She ought to be unlikable -- her entire life's built on leading on men and dumping them, so she can cash their folks' paycheck -- but Parker invests Paula with enough humor and poise to keep her from being unredeemable. Paula's merely a Carrie Bradshaw who ditched the lib-lit career path for something more profitable: screwing for cash, which is how everyone in Hollywood makes a living, one way or another.