“Listen to me,” Matthew McConaughey instructs Kate Hudson during one of several peculiarly intimate scenes in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. “If you’re going to name my member, you’ve got to name it something hyper-masculine, something like Spike, Butch, or Krull the Warrior King—but not Princess Sophia!”

Generations from now, when all the books about the McConaissance have been written, scholars will still be debating whether the lowest point of the actor’s troublesome Middle Period was the “name my member” speech or the scene in Failure to Launch in which he is the victim of the first chuckwalla attack in the history of motion pictures. Let them quibble. After assigning myself the task of watching not just How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Failure to Launch but also The Wedding Planner and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, I’m here not to parse but to bear witness: the McConaughey Miracle is even more miraculous than we thought. If he could emerge from these movies to achieve the dark majesty he now enjoys, anything is possible.

It’s too facile to say that McConaughey has hit a winning streak. It’s more like he’s turned himself inside out. Forget about the Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club. His work in the HBO series True Detective alone singles him out as the most watchable actor alive. One searches in vain for historical analogies, for anything resembling his startling career rejuvenation. It’s as if Dean Jones, the so-bland-he-almost-wasn’t-there star of sixties comedies like The Love Bug and That Darn Cat!, had gone on to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver

McConaughey first came to notice in 1993 for his eerily unactor-like portrayal of Wooderson, the high school hanger-on in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. He became a star a few years later with A Time to Kill and Lone Star and followed with high-profile roles in prestige movies like Contact and Amistad. But for whatever reason, the magic didn’t linger. He began off-gassing charisma at a steady rate, and eventually The Wedding Planner and its cousins brought his reserves down to a critical level. These four romantic comedies, spanning the years between 2001 and 2009, gave the impression that McConaughey’s fate was sealed, that he had become a harmless hunk oozin’ and snoozin’ his way to that zone of Hollywood respectability once occupied by George Hamilton and Burt Reynolds. They provided no indication of the drive and discernment that, beginning in 2011 with The Lincoln Lawyer, would lead him out of the slough and to recent best-actor honors from both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. His faultless choices—Bernie, Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Mud, Magic Mike, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, True Detective—demonstrate a remarkable nose for material. This feel for scripts that are edgy and unsettling or simply good might have been there all along, lying dormant, or maybe it just sprang into being from the frustration of having to deliver lessons-learned, end-of-act-three lines like “I think that maybe happiness comes from caring more about people, rather than less.”

There was not much to suggest in these four movies that their male star could ever achieve escape velocity, or would even want to. They have their moments—a gag here and there worth a distracted chuckle, a slightly cleverer-than-expected premise, a line of dialogue every twenty minutes that is sufficiently weird to wake you out of your slumber (McConaughey to a lust-struck bridesmaid in a hotel bar: “Why don’t you scamper up to my room, boil some water, get the chicken claw out of my suitcase, do some light stretches, and I’ll be up in five”). But as a group, they are as uniformly generic as their chick-flick posters, which typically feature McConaughey and his female co-star staring at the camera, she with a savvy smile, he with a “What? Me?” expression of quizzical dudeness. The creepy pageboy haircut of his Dazed and Confused debut is a distant memory, but in all these movies his slo-mo East Texas accent is slathered on without comment, even when he’s playing the scion of an aristocratic family from Newport, Rhode Island. 

Three of the four movies feature McConaughey essaying some variation of the studly, amiable sleazeball who can be redeemed only by passing through the fire of romantic commitment. In The Wedding Planner, however, he is pediatrician Steve Edison, a morally upright dreamboat. He even wears glasses, though in an every-now-and-then movie way. It’s the dullest role he’s ever played, and it would be even more forgettable if it weren’t for McConaughey’s good sportsmanship. In one scene of transcendent preposterousness, he and Jennifer Lopez accidentally knock over a statue of a naked Greek warrior. Somehow this results in the statue’s genitalia breaking off and then becoming attached to our hero’s palm with Krazy Glue. You would have to have a blacker critic’s heart than mine not to be impressed by the go-for-it attitude McConaughey displays when Edison realizes he is in love with Lopez’s character as she holds his hand and swabs at the warrior’s limestone package with a Q-tip. Especially moving is the tender way he utters, “Oh, nicely done. Thank you, Mary,” when she finally frees it and slips it in her purse.

Movies like The Wedding Planner usually require a climactic mad dash across town to prevent the heroine from marrying the wrong guy or getting on a plane to take a job in a different city. McConaughey gamely embraces these tropes, even when he has to ride on the back of a motor scooter wearing a helmet festooned with a bridal veil. Sometimes though, the script is cringingly original. He soldiers through inscrutable scenes in Failure to Launch in which he is attacked not just by the chuckwalla but by a chipmunk and a dolphin as well. Condoms rain down on him from the sky in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Here he is in Failure confronting his very naked father—Terry Bradshaw!—in a scene that would cause Lars von Trier to squirm; there he is in How to Lose a Guy demonstrating his horrible singing voice to all the world in a duet of “You’re So Vain” with Kate Hudson, the most alarming courtship display I’ve witnessed since the mating ritual of the Attwater’s prairie chicken. 

It’s tempting to watch these listless movies and look for signs of McConaughey’s impatience with the material. But in none of them does he give off a slumming vibe. He says his dreary lines (“I’ve never met anyone who’s a member of a Scrabble club before, that’s for sure!”) with professional courtesy. What we do see, occasionally, are the outcroppings of shallow-buried emotional strata. When his character is perturbed in a scene, or hurt, there’s often that momentary flat stare, followed by that slow-dawning smile with its hint of sadistic distance. Informed by hindsight, we sense that Connor Mead, the rich, self-satisfied hero of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, might be nourished by the same bewilderment and anger as Ron Woodroof, the dying oil-field worker in Dallas Buyers Club. When Mead proclaims, “I am condemned to see the world as it really is, and love—love is a myth,” the artless line of dialogue may fall flat, but what he says and the way he says it may put you in mind of Rust Cohle, the hard-core fatalist McConaughey embodies with such breathtaking authority in True Detective

When you look at these movies through a past-is-prologue lens, things leap out at you. There’s a scene in Failure to Launch in which McConaughey’s character turns to Sarah Jessica Parker, who he believes has betrayed him, and delivers a line that sends her straight into a tearful reflective montage, complete with Mint Milanos: “Get the fuck out of my car!” It’s the most authentic line in all four movies and is delivered with more voltage than this lightweight comedy is rated for. The moment it’s spoken, you have the feeling that this harmless, callow character could be dangerous, that he might kill this woman and stuff her into the trunk of his Porsche. Instead, of course, he wanders off into his own montage, where he drinks beer and ponders his fear of love. But it’s that flash you remember, the moment in Failure to Launch when Matthew McConaughey gives us a preview of the high orbit that—against all expectations—it turned out he was capable of reaching.