Last week on "Piers Morgan Tonight," Matt Damon quipped that he had gone from one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood just three years ago to one of its least cost-effective today. Citing a Forbes story about actors' earning power, Damon said his agents these days were doing far too good a job -- he was pulling in top paychecks despite generating only middling box office.
Damon may have been joking, but he wasn't really kidding. Until this weekend, every lead role he's tackled since leaving behind his signature Jason Bourne character in 2007 (a roster that includes "The Informant!" Invictus" and "Green Zone") was a commercial disappointment. A co-lead part last fall in Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" didn't work out much better. Only True Grit" bucked the trend, and that one wasn't primarily Damon's doing.
The underwhelming reception has been a shame considering how much Damon has stretched himself. Whatever you think of any of those five movies, Damon's part in each is wildly different, both from the others and from what most big-name actors are trying these days. It's very few A-list performers who can go from a troubled clairvoyant ("Hereafter") to a dandy cowboy ("True Grit") to a star-crossed politician ("The Adjustment Bureau") in the space of five months.
Damon finally seemed to snap his losing streak this past weekend when "The Adjustment Bureau" opened to a sturdy $20.9 million, at the middle-high end of industry estimates and in a solid second place behind "Rango." It is, perhaps not coincidentally, his first film of the recent group with a heavy romantic component, which may suggest where one of his key constituencies lies these days.
If the number was a relief to fans of Damon's adventurousness, though, it also raised the question of why it took so long.
Part of Damon's slump can be attributed to the selectivity that makes him interesting in the first place. Having helped anchor major franchises such as the Bourne and "Ocean's" series, the 40-year-old is at the point in his career when he has the leverage to get trickier movies made, which almost inevitably leads to a slump. It's the self-correcting mechanism of Hollywood: Chart enough hits and you're afforded the chance to make the passion projects, which all but guarantees you won't chart as many hits.
But there's a more specific arc for Damon, who in the last few years lost the broad-spectrum appeal of his Bourne and "Ocean's" days thanks to his political outspokenness, which has drawn the criticism of the likes of Andrew Breitbart and others. Damon collaborated on a television documentary with Howard Zinn. He became an activist for causes perceived as liberal. During the 2008 election season, he famously angered the right-wing blogosphere when he questioned whether Sarah Palin's "hockey mom" bona fides translated into an ability to govern.
It's not clear yet if the "Bureau" numbers can be interpreted as a sign that Middle America is willing to get past their suspicion of Damon and focus on his acting, which from "The Talented Mr. Ripley" to "The Good Shepherd" to his current phase has always been strikingly well-regarded.
It is worth noting that "Bureau" marks the biggest opening for any Damon movie since "The Bourne Ultimatum," and a definite improvement over the measly $14.3 million for "Green Zone" a year ago, when a confluence of factors that included the actor's politics and the movie's (perceived) ideology led to audiences largely staying away.
Damon these days is also criticizing President Obama for a lack of idealism and ambition, and though it's not exactly the same criticism you might hear on Fox News, it lands a little differently from his candor about Sarah Palin. And unlike Sean Penn, whose box office really does sometimes seem dinged by his outspokenness, Damon pulls off political activism with charisma and humor, even when he's talking about starchy subjects like African water shortages, or talking up "Inside Job," which he narrated.
A fourth Bourne movie currently remains on hold for Damon and director Paul Greengrass as writers try to hammer out a script. Instead, in the next 18 months Damon will offer up a Cameron Crowe movie about a Southern California father who becomes a zoo owner; a Steven Soderbergh medical action-thriller; and a Liberace biopic, in which he'll play the iconic pianist's boyfriend. The adventurousness will keep coming. We'll see if moviegoers do too.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Matt Damon at January's Golden Globes. Credit: Paul Drinkwater / NBC / Getty Images