Tripp, the protagonist of 2006’s Failure To Launch, has a problem that could only exist in a painfully contrived romantic comedy. In fact, it’s less an actual problem human beings might experience in this universe than the opposite of a problem: His life is just too awesome for words. Tripp, played with shirtless, honey-dripping Southern charm by Matthew McConaughey, spends his days sipping cold brews and bro-ing out with his buds: Demo (Bradley Cooper, wearing people clothes), Ace (Gigli’s Justin Bartha), and Tripp’s adorable-moppet sidekick. They live in suspended adolescence and handsomeness. At night, Tripp beds a series of lovely ladies, and when they get a look in their eyes that suggests they want more from him than no-strings-attached sex, he reveals that he still lives at home with his adoring parents, Al (former football player Terry Bradshaw, in a performance of revelatory nudity) and Sue (Kathy Bates). At this point, women previously obsessed with Tripp flee his home in such a furious hurry that they leave behind cartoon-style holes shaped like their silhouettes.
Yep, everything is all right, all right, all right for ol’ Tripp. He’s living the sweet life, just as McConaughey was enjoying a pretty damn nifty existence around the time he made Failure To Launch. Sure, he wasn’t living up to his early hype as the Paul Newman of his generation, or to the brilliance of his career-making character-actor turn as Wooderson in Dazed And Confused. But while the films he was turning out weren’t great, they were clearly fun to make, even as each critically reviled turkey brought McConaughey closer and closer to lazy self-parody. The man made a motion picture titled Surfer, Dude that is exactly what it sounds like.
As an actor, McConaughey had a problem in common with Tripp: His life was just too easy. McConaughey didn’t really even have to act in order to continue collecting big paychecks for fluffy popcorn movies. All he had to do to keep the money train rolling along was show up on set, say his lines, smile that irresistible smile, and take off his shirt at regular intervals. His career was moving backward. He started off with critical respect, acclaim, and hype, and descended into the state of a pretty-boy male starlet trading on his good looks and charm, instead of doing the hard work of constantly evolving as an actor.
That’s how the Paul Newman of tomorrow and Dazed And Confused’s greatest scene-stealer ended up being the easygoing eye-candy opposite Sarah Jessica Parker in moronic fluff like Failure To Launch, the 21st highest-grossing film of 2006, and one of the creative nadirs of McConaughey’s career, though for reasons that have more to do with an insultingly idiotic screenplay than the actor’s typically appealing performance.
Failure To Launch is such a bizarre, artificial concoction that only the slightest push in the right direction would make it crazed self-parody. Buried not too deep inside Failure To Launch is a sly, subversive, They Came Together-like spoof that isn’t a tortured romantic comedy so much as a deliriously meta commentary on rom-com contrivances. Also buried inside the film: a dark comedy about an insane con artist and the havoc she wreaks in the name of getting stunted men to grow up. But that’s also passed over in favor of mindlessness that makes less and less sense as it goes along, which is remarkable considering that the film initially appears completely nonsensical.
The central contrivance behind Failure To Launch is that Al and Sue are so desperate for their charming, lovable son to get lost that they hire Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker), who specializes in getting men in their 30s and 40s to move out of their parents’ homes. Failure To Launch is a classic example of what Roger Ebert called the Idiot Plot, one where a few simple sentences would end all the contrivances. In this case, that line would involve Al or Sue saying, “You know we love you, Tripp, but we feel like living here might be stunting your growth. You might be better off looking into a place of your own, ideally so you can start your own family.”
But no, that would be sane and sensible. So instead, they hire Paula, a cross between a life coach, an emotional hooker (think the intellectual courtesans of Woody Allen’s “The Whore Of Mensa,” minus the brains), a con artist, and a lunatic whose galloping madness wreaks havoc in the lives of all she meets. As she explains, Paula has a unique business model.
She pretends to fall in love with the man-child in question, thereby boosting his confidence. She refuses to have sex with her sad perma-child target. Then once he’s moved away from home, she presumably dumps him. As Paula explains to Al and Sue (the confidence with which she delivers her spiel only slightly obscuring its complete insanity), she has the art of winning a man’s heart down to a science. Reduced to bullet points, her strategy is:
• Memorable meeting
• Get to know each other over a few casual meals
• Male helps female through emotional crisis
• Meet the friends
• Male teaches female something
• Male has the self-esteem to stand on his own feet
When Paula talks about the steps to winning and losing a man, she could just as easily be talking about the conventions of the romantic comedy. The “memorable meeting” lines up with the genre’s “meet cute,” and Failure To Launch has a doozy of a meet-cute for its star-crossed lovers. Tripp is hanging out at a furniture store with his folks when Al points him in the direction of a beautiful mystery woman, who turns out to be Paula. She delivers coffee to the clerks at the store, then sits down and explains to a beguiled Tripp that she has no interest in buying furniture. Instead, she has a ritual where she spends 20 minutes a day at the store “to clear her head” and vibe out to the store’s music, “a soothing blend of mid-’70s singer-songwriters and smooth jazz” that’s “practically narcotic.”
Apropos of nothing, Paula volunteers that she does not sleep with anyone on the first date, and when Tripp replies that they’re not on a date, she retorts that it would be a date if he asked her out that night. Throughout the scene, Paula doesn’t seem like a quirky, free-spirited woman luxuriating in her eccentricity, so much as a crazy robot-lady reading from a script. It’s romantic-comedy flirtation as it might seem to a being from some distant planet; the rhythms and words are familiar, but they make almost no sense in context, and even less out of context.
Paula’s theory is that men in newly formed romantic relationships are more likely to be confident, to have a spring in their step and a song in their heart, even though she refuses to sleep with them. So even in the best-case scenario, Paula takes money to pretend to fall in love with someone she considers a pathetic loser, then boots him, which is supposed to give him the self-confidence to embrace adulthood.
Despite the carefree awesomeness of Tripp’s life, he nevertheless falls for Paula’s shtick, and they begin going out. Paula of course can’t tell Tripp about her actual line of work, so in a line the filmmakers apparently did not think would make an unlikable character even more unlikeable, she tells Tripp she works with special-needs kids, which is a profession slightly more honorable than lying and manipulating people for money. And just when it seems like Paula can’t get any less likable, she stages her “emotional crisis” by pretending that her dog is dying, and that only Tripp’s love and support can help her through this fake trauma.
Audiences tend to have strong emotional connections to animals onscreen, particularly dogs. There’s a reason that when people think of tear-jerkers, Old Yeller frequently springs to mind; we have an attachment to animals onscreen that’s intense to the point of irrationality. It’s one thing to destroy an entire city onscreen; it’s quite another to kill a single dog. (That shit is just cruel.) So it’s utterly baffling why the filmmakers felt they could have Paula fake one of the most traumatic and disturbing experience in every dog owner’s life, and remain even theoretically likable.
In the midst of Paula and Tripp’s faux-mance, Tripp’s bro Ace spies Paula with another client (a man credited only as “Techie Guy,” played by Patton Oswalt) and uses this information to blackmail Paula into setting him up with her roommate Kit (a delightfully sour Zooey Deschanel). Paula and Kit’s relationship makes as little sense as everything else in the movie. Kit is a twentysomething alcoholic misanthrope who devotes most of her time to trying to murder a bird that’s been annoying her. Yet Kit is nevertheless Paula’s only friend and confidant, even though Paula tells her things like, “Just because you finally convinced a guy to sleep with you more than once doesn’t make you an expert on relationships,” and, “I’m the only person who can tolerate your bizarre and violent mood swings.”
Still, Tripp thinks Paula is swell. But when she gets that telltale gleam in her eye that suggests that she wants more than he will be able to give, he takes her to meet the parents, his time-tested means of breaking up with girlfriends. Paula panics. This has never happened before! No man has ever been able to resist her creepy charms! So in a moment of desperation, she breaks her cardinal rule and has sex with Tripp.
When Tripp learns that Paula has been paid to pretend to be his girlfriend, he’s rightly disgusted, both with her and with his parents. A gloriously idiotic sequence follows wherein Tripp’s best bros sit him down and explain that despite their seemingly emotionally stunted lifestyles, Ace actually owns the house he lives in with his mother, while Demo enjoys living at home with his parents so he can travel the world having sex with beautiful women, because that is his destiny. They assure Trip that they are happy and functional, while he is neither. It’s essential that Demo and Ace convey this key bit of information to Tripp, because he easily could have gone through life assuming that he was happy having sex with beautiful women, being waited on hand and foot by his parents, and enjoying a carefree life of leisure as a pampered prince of a super-bro. But no, despite all appearances, Tripp is a sad man, because, as we learn in the third act, he was once deeply in love, but the love of his life (and the mother of that adorable sidekick/advisor moppet) died six years ago.
The film apparently feels that unless viewers know that Tripp’s carefree playboy lifestyle is a response to the love of his life dying, we wouldn’t have enough sympathy for this man who has spent the entire film being handsome and charming, and all of our sympathy would go to the horrible professional liar who’s spent the entire film manipulating people. Failure To Launch goes overboard making Tripp sympathetic, while rendering Paula a complete psychopath.
But the filmmakers don’t need to do anything to make Tripp sympathetic, since as McConaughey plays him, he has an easygoing likability that completely undercuts the film’s contention that his character desperately needs to grow up and embrace the responsibilities of adulthood. McConaughey isn’t lazy, weak, or boring here; he’s merely coasting. And even at his most apathetic, he’s enormously appealing in a way that works against the film’s narrative thrust. Failure To Launch, along with Surfer, Dude, may represent the nadir of McConaughey’s film career. But even while expending as little energy as possible, he’s still more winning than his character has any right to be.
The makers of Failure To Launch write themselves into such a corner that the film’s climax involves Kit driving Paula to a house, then locking her inside so she’ll be forced to have a conversation with Tripp, whose buddies have taped him to a chair so he’ll be forced to interact with Paula. This sequence is notable partly for containing one of the most hilariously awkward ADR bits in film history: During a long shot of Kit and Paula in a car, Deschanel’s voice can be heard delivering the line, “On the way, let’s stop at Philip’s. I can give you back that sweater of yours that you lost.” This line comes in a sing-song tone that seems to mock its clumsy stupidity.
Forcing Trip and Paula to interact works beautifully, of course, because why wouldn’t it? Paula and Tripp end the film on a boat together, with Tripp no longer afraid of commitment and adulthood, and Paula, well, being less terrible than usual, presumably. Failure To Launch presents this as a happy ending, but I think we can all agree that Tripp would be happier if he dumped Paula and moved back in with his parents, as that seems like a pretty sweet setup.
Failure To Launch makes a terrible argument for maturity, because its perversely juvenile conception of romance, gender, and life seems stuck somewhere between elementary and middle school. But it accidentally makes an excellent argument for McConaughey’s need to mature. All Tripp needs to do to continue to be happy is hang out with his bros, enjoy some brews, and maybe sell enough boats to maintain his chill lifestyle. But McConaughey is an artist, not just a preposterously beautiful man. True, by the time Failure To Launch scored at the box office and predictably disappointed critics (in a typical sentiment, Ebert observed of the film’s characters, “Oh, what stupid people these are. Stupid to do what they do, say what they say, think what they think, and get bitten by a chipmunk, a dolphin, a lizard and a mockingbird.”), and Surfer, Dude all but skipped theaters entirely en route to DVD. In spite of McConaughey’s early notoriety, he’d become an entertainer, not an artist, and a pretty superficial and shallow one at that. Forget being the next Paul Newman; McConaughey seemed to be ambling sideways into Tab Hunter territory, without even a John Waters to offer a late-career redemption.
Yet even when his career was at its weakest, McConaughey still retained the magnetism that distinguished him even among the gallery of future stars in Dazed And Confused. In many ways, that magnetism works against Failure To Launch; when the whole point of a movie is getting the lead character to change, it doesn’t make sense to feature a character whose life already seems pretty ideal, if not downright perfect. McConaughey easily could have gone on being a handsomely compensated entertainer for the rest of his life, but when an actor has this much natural talent, it seems like a terrible waste for him to expend it on movies like this one.
Thankfully, McConaughey began the painful but rewarding and emotionally satisfying process of maturing as an actor and artist with a winning streak that began when he filled in for his buddy Owen Wilson in a small but key role in Tropic Thunder, and peaked with his Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club, a brutal, intense, physically and emotionally challenging role that represented the antithesis of the “show up and smile” aesthetic he employed in Failure To Launch and similar fluff. Tripp didn’t really need to grow up, because he doesn’t appear to nurse ambitions beyond selling boats and charming the ladies. But it was essential for McConaughey to leave behind the fluffy stupidity of youth to finally live up to his potential as an actor. And it didn’t take a psychotic professional liar and manipulator to shove him toward maturity.
Up next: Cobra