The Good Movie Star

Matt Damon's wry sense of humor and relaxed intelligence have a way sneaking up on you

December 21, 2006|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

At 36, Matt Damon has the boyish, square-cut good looks of a comic-book hero - the classical kind that doesn't wallow in anxiety or neurosis. He's developed a media persona as an All-American guy for a wised-up age: go-getting and idealistic, but with a hip, wry streak and an iconoclastic attitude toward everything, including his own success.

His friend and creative partner, Ben Affleck, and Damon's pals from Ocean's Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen, George Clooney and Brad Pitt, attract publicity even when they try to duck it. Damon has become a superstar without any tabloid taint. Maybe that's because he's slyly presented himself as the junior partner in fast company. During promotional jaunts for Ocean's movies, he'd joke about being the one guy not named People's sexiest man alive.

On talk shows, he projects strength and virtue without feeling the need to lay them out and beg for affirmation. He's not afraid to speak his mind and declare his preferences, as when he proclaimed to Chris Matthews on Monday night's Hardball that Barack Obama was his candidate. He's got a steady gaze and a twinkle in his eye, and even in a phone interview he laughs easily. Asked why he hasn't become a romantic hero, he says, "Hey, I just became a movie father for the first time in Syriana. I've got to knock these things down one at a time."

But in movies or on entertainment shows, a wicked deadpan and a wholesome poker face are his stock in trade. On Late Night with David Letterman recently he reduced the host to spluttering, "Excellent, excellent!" by doing a spot-on imitation of the gravelly drawl of Matthew McConaughey. On location in North Africa for The Bourne Ultimatum, he pulled off a hilarious bit for the American Cinematheque's salute to Clooney, pretending to give Tangiers moviegoers their money back for seeing Clooney's abysmal Batman and Robin. Then he requested more cash because Clooney's equally terrible The Peacemaker was due to open there soon.

Damon's relaxed intelligence and humor make him a pleasure to be around even when he's playing heroes or anti-heroes who are tightly wound.

Edward Norton, his co-star in the cult gambling favorite Rounders (1997) - a virtual paean to Damon's poker face - remembers that production as one of the happiest and easiest in his career, and calls Damon, "just a stone-cold good actor. I don't want to say facile - what's the positive word for facile? He's incredibly agile. You can go over here or over there, and he's right with you. ... "

Even people who haven't worked with Damon think they know him and think they like him. But he specializes in playing men who don't know who they are and have a big fat hole in their identity. It's his air of mystery or mischief, not his wholesomeness, that's sustained his career and propelled him from being the noble male ingenue of Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) and The Rainmaker (1997) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) to the quick-witted dirty cop in The Departed and now the super-secretive career CIA officer in The Good Shepherd (opening tomorrow).

Over the phone, Damon does not expand on his year-long marriage to Argentina native Luciana Barroso (a former Miami bartender). But he's totally at ease when he refers to it, and he confesses that he had "a lot of fun" taking his 8-year-old stepdaughter to see Wicked. (He and Barroso also have a 6-month-old daughter.)

Yet Damon the actor, in the biggest roles of his career (especially in this, the biggest year of his career), has made his mark playing figures who are slippery and elusive and sometimes fools of fate. The working-class hero of Good Will Hunting, a natural math genius hiding his gifts and toiling as a janitor at MIT, evasively maneuvers between South Boston drinking buddies and high-powered Cambridge, Mass., academics. In that part and others, such as the title roles of Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), a sociopathic changeling, and Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd, one of the coldest customers since Michael Corleone, he's created a new screen archetype for himself: the unhappy-go-lucky guy, often thwarted in his effort to find out who he is or who he can be.

"I guess that is something you can see in my work," he says. "But it's not something I've been conscious of. And a lot of movies, plays and fiction are about the quest for self."

Somehow, Damon the onscreen question mark and Damon the offscreen good guy bleed into each other, and his producers think that's a good thing - even for his portrayal of a daunting CIA cofounder who starts out as a fresh-faced idealist and ends up trapped in a life of betrayal and mistrust.

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