The tagline for Matthew McConaughey’s latest film is “Love and waves, that’s what we need in these dark days.” A movie star who isn’t afraid to tackle the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression is a fine thing, but the fact of the matter is that Surfer, Dude quietly made its way into theaters in early September, after Hollywood’s tidal wave of summer blockbusters had receded but before the events of September 14 wiped out all hope that the current economic recession would ebb anytime soon. After three weeks in a grand total of 69 theaters, Surfer, Dude‘s total box-office gross was $52,132, which probably didn’t leave McConaughey or his filmmaker bros feeling too stoked.
Surfer, Dude was directed by S.R. Bindler, who helmed the documentary Hands on a Hard Body in 1997 but has no other directing credits listed on IMDB between then and 2008. McConaughey’s production company, j.k. livin, helped produce Hands on a Hard Body and has its hands all over Surfer, Dude, and according to McConaughey in the behind-the-scenes featurette included on the DVD, he’s known Bindler since they were 15. (He should’ve just let McConaughey cheat off him in high school. Now he’s going to be under the actor’s thumb for the rest of his life.)
McConaughey says in the featurette that making Surfer, Dude was “the most fulfilling, creative experience I’ve ever had.” Shooting a movie in Malibu with your friends does sound like a nice way to spend 28 days in the spring, but whatever fulfillment McConaughey got out of the experience doesn’t translate to the screen. Surfer, Dude is a comedy, but it isn’t funny — unless you’re high, I guess. Since the film was shot for only $6 million, I wouldn’t be surprised if pro-hemp costars Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson were paid in weed.
For the most part Surfer, Dude just sits there on the screen for 85 minutes waiting for a wave of laughter or excitement to arrive, much like its hero, Steve Addington (McConaughey), a superstar “soul surfer” who returns to his Malibu home for the summer only to find that the waves have suddenly disappeared. (To qualify as a soul surfer, you must renounce all cell phones, you can only watch your old surfing highlights on Super-8 film, and your hair-restoration medicine must be totally organic. Oh, and it helps if you have a surfing double for your surfing scenes, of which Surfer, Dude has precious few.) He gives up pot and sex, hoping to appease the gods of surfing, but nothing works. Without waves, Addington is adrift.
Meanwhile, a former surfer named Eddie Zarno (Jeffrey Nordling), who’s now a Hollywood producer, has taken over Addington’s sponsorship contracts and wants him to be part of his Real World-type reality show starring the world’s top surfers. He also wants Addington to lend his longboard skills to a virtual-reality game called Free Surfer. (You know he’s a jerk from the get-go because his name starts with a Z. Kneel before Zarno …) Addington just wants to surf and refuses to be a part of Zarno’s projects, but once the sleazebag cuts off his credit flow, Addington becomes desperate, especially with no waves in sight.
Only at the very beginning and end of Surfer, Dude does McConaughey wear a shirt. For the rest of the film he’s bare-chested, sporting just a pair of black-and-white swim trunks. It’s become a running joke that McConaughey is regularly photographed by the paparazzi with his shirt off, and in films like Fool’s Gold (2008) and Sahara (2005) he’s been more than happy to follow suit. But this is getting ridiculous — McConaughey may think of Surfer, Dude as a passion project, but it’s really just a vanity project. He appears to be in love with himself and his six-pack abs, but all the time he’s spent focusing on his physique has meant less time picking a direction for his character. Depending on the scene and where the plot needs to go, Addington is either an airhead who plays a didgeridoo in the nude to make the waves return or he’s the only one smart enough and shrewd enough to see through Zarno as soon as he meets him.
Surfer, Dude tries to make the point that people on reality TV shows haven’t been “real” in a long time, that they’re mostly actors looking for their big break, but the point is undercut by the film’s lead actor, who’s supposed to be playing a character named Steve Addington but can’t stop playing “Matthew McConaughey” long enough to embrace the film’s narrative reality.
Owen Wilson, another Texan who looks comfortable on a beach, is a more natural comedian than McConaughey and would’ve been better as Addington. Plus it’s hard not to think of Sean Penn when watching Surfer, Dude — his performance as a stoned SoCal surfer in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High is one of his best because he fully commits to the role of Jeff Spicoli, never letting the actor underneath surface at any point the way McConaughey does as Addington.
McConaughey’s career, in some ways, is the inverse of Penn’s: he started out in the ’90s working with directors like Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, The Newton Boys), John Sayles (Lone Star), and Robert Zemeckis (Contact), and though he was always valued as a piece of beefcake, he’d built up a solid resumé of serious films by the end of the decade; it looked like he would transcend the hype that came with his big splash in 1996’s A Time to Kill. But in this decade he’s mostly played laid-back charmers in standard-fare romantic comedies and action-adventures. As for Penn, his eye-opening comic turn in Fast Times was followed by flashy roles in dramas rather than comedies. He wanted respect as a dramatic actor. He didn’t want to be typecast as a pothead for the next ten years. After watching Surfer, Dude, it’s hard to remember that McConaughey once acted alongside Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman, in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997).
After Addington visits Zarno’s headquarters and sees how the virtual reality of Free Surfer is created, he delivers his statement of purpose: “I’m not some ass clown in a green room. I’m a surfer, dude.” But if McConaughey keeps making lifeless movies like Surfer, Dude, he won’t be remembered any more fondly than the ass clowns on Wall Street who brought these dark days upon us in the first place.
Surfer, Dude is rated R and available through Netflix. The disc’s special features include deleted scenes, audio commentary with McConaughey, and the Surfer, Dude “12-webisode series.”