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Is Matt Damon finally regaining his mainstream appeal?

March 7, 2011 |  7:00 am


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


"Rango" wins box-office shootout; "Adjustment Bureau" in second

Why "Green Zone" failed

Matt Damon gets adjusted

Photo: Matt Damon at January's Golden Globes. Credit: Paul Drinkwater / NBC / Getty Images

Comments () | Archives (9)

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I think Damon is an underrated actor. That said, his political comments are alienating. He's not just a critic of Palin. He's said very nasty things about her. He previously cast doubt over the legitimacy of the 2004 presidential election's results and doesn't embrace causes which appear liberal. They are liberal to the core.

I can't blame people for not supporting an actor who's so openly dismissive of their political passions. It's their choice how they spend their entertainment dollars. It's not something I would do, but I understand the impulse.

Paul Newman, from what I can tell, was a pretty liberal fellow. But I can't recall him making coarse comments that might have turned off movie goers. He was a gentleman, and conservatives didn't hold his liberal views against him.

I love Matt Damon in any kind of movie. Hereafter was perfect but it's not e kind of movie that masses will love because it's difficult but that's why I love Matt, because he can take on those kind of movies and get them made and he's such a compassionate human being that cares about the world he lives in

I find it interesting that a film with a so-so opening is a sign of something. Not sure where this is coming from and not sure why you attribute his bad showing to politics (bashing Palin) and this improvement to his criticizing President Obama.

@Toto, Paul Newman was on Nixon's enemies list and he was proud of it he said. He actively campaigned for McCarthy (not Joe) in the 60s and this guy was very liberal. Paul was not shy and said some pretty strong things about conservative politicians in his day. Yes he was a gentleman, but also very outspoken. But he was a good guy down to his core.

I've watched Matt's career for quite awhile now and he's always been the same. He takes the long view. He makes short-term sacrifices for long-term gains, and given the choice will always choose to stretch himself as an actor rather than repeat what he's already done. More power to him. I, as an audience member, respect that.

And this is America. If y

Matt Damon is one of the best actors out there. He is such a strong mixture of intelligence, creativity and empathy. Also seems like a helluva nice guy. And funny, too! I wish him all the success in the world because he deserves it. Matt, if you or your publicist is reading this, keep doing everything just as you have! We're lucky to have you.

I'm really happy that I saw this video. I really wanted to see the movie. Love Matt Damon and Emily Blunt so much. I think after watching this video, I'm just going to wait until Netflicks has it. Thanks!

@Toto, I don't understand why there has to be a 'liberal' vs 'conservative' argument in the first place. Just because someone is passionate about certain views, it doesn't mean they are a 'liberal'. And even if they were, why is that a bad word? I am right in the middle, a moderate, for transparency, and I think the problem in our country today is that there is so little tolerance for divergent points of view. It is good to be well-rounded and see other people's point of view - calling them names just makes you sound ignorant.

I never took much notice of Matt Damon until I saw Syriana. That film cemented in my mind his brilliance as a actor. Matt Damon reminds me of British and other non-American actors in that he has the ability to project subtlety and intelligence, as well as be an action star. In my mind, that's why his Jason Bourne is more tolerable and compelling to watch than other action heroes. The rest are all 'been there done that.' I also love Matt Damon for his liberal views, and particularly for his relationship with the late great Howard Zinn (RIP).


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