The smartest and most accurate thing ever said about Matt Damon wasn't from a critic, his partner (...or rather, his bestest best friend) Ben Affleck, or even Damon himself. It was Paul Rudd in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. "I always thought that Matt Damon was like a Streisand, but I think he's rocking the sh*t in this one", this one being The Bourne Identity.
It's so funny because it's so true. Damon has earned a reputation for more artsy, high-brow fare (All the Pretty Horses, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Good Shepherd), so when he busted out as ultimate action hero Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity (and the subsequent sequels), I think most everyone did a double-take. Since when did Will Hunting become such a bad-ass? It is indicative of the career choices Damon has made: balancing high art with high commerce. The fact that he's been able to do it so well (for the most part) shows he's thought out his career more carefully than his partner Ben Affleck. The latter seemed determined to be a major action star (in all forms 'action' can take); the latter concentrated on sharpening his abilities on screen. It's a curious thing that while they started out together, it's Damon who has the critics affection while Affleck has their disdain. It's only when Affleck went BEHIND the camera that he had them drooling in the same way Damon has them drool when he's IN FRONT of the camera.
It helps when you write screenplays for yourself. While it is possible that Affleck/Damon could have gotten to where they are now, it is highly unlikely it would have happened if it weren't for Good Will Hunting. It wasn't as if he/they didn't have a burgeoning career: there was School Ties, there was Courage Under Fire, there was Chasing Amy. Well, on that one, I think connections did help, yet I digress.
Good Will Hunting had one reason for being: promote Damon and Affleck, and boy did it ever. Got them that Best Original Screenplay Oscar--not too bad I suppose. Except that it wasn't the Best Original Screenplay that year. I still hold that As Good As It Gets is better--as a story and a screenplay. However, Hollywood was too enamoured with the idea of two cute, young guys, writing their way to stardom. It was the ultimate in awarding of chutzpah, and from all that their fortunes were spun. It should be noted that since Good Will Hunting, Damon has written exactly ONE script: Gerry (which from what I understand, failed at the box office and still divides critics--haven't seen it, won't comment on it). Affleck has co-written TWO scripts. Sylvester Stallone has written more scripts. It might be generous to say Damon had no interest in writing anything other than what could promote him. I don't begrudge him this, but I wonder if the Academy was too dazzled by Damon & Affleck's boyish charms to note they were not writers per se.
After he hunted down the Oscar into submission, Damon has been pursuing those more artistic endeavours. You have the aforementioned The Talented Mr. Ripley (where I will say he should have earned another Best Actor nomination...see, all truth here), and things like Syriana, The Good Shepherd, and Invictus. For the most part, Damon seems to be geared more toward films with a small, select audience, a daresay more intellectual group. All those mentioned films were adored by critics but weren't big hits financially. However, Damon is no fool...well, at least not a big one. He can go the more commercial route: besides the Bourne films, he's done the Ocean's films (although he appears to be the junior partner to Clooney and Pitt in these films). It's a sign of his rep that when he does appear in movies with no artistic pretensions (Stuck on You), even in a cameo (Eurotrip), the audience basically wonders, "What the hell WAS that?"
His efforts to be artistic have, on occasion, caused him to make some truly dreadful choices. There was The Legend of Bagger Vance. His efforts to be commercial have, on occasion, caused him to make some truly dreadful choices. There was Green Zone. I think in the case of the former, it was trying TOO HARD to be "grand art", and in the latter, it was trying TOO HARD to be "topical". We already know Damon thinks ex-President Bush lied about WMDs to get us into Iraq...we didn't need to see a propaganda film masking as an action flick to get his point.
I also take this curious side note into consideration: in spite of his Oscar (singular) and name recognition he still can't sell a film with his name alone. He provided the voice for two animated films (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Titan: A.D.). Both tanked. The Informant! and Green Zone were sold with his name alone. Both tanked. All his financial successes have been as part of an ensemble (Ocean's 11-13, The Departed) or a franchise (Ocean's 11-13, the Bourne films). Now, you might say, wasn't he the star in the Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum? Well, yes...but, it wasn't the name Matt Damon that sold tickets. It was Jason Bourne.
Now, here's my take on Damon: he's a very talented actor. I think some of his performances are amazing (example: The Talented Mr. Ripley). I also like Rounders (though I suspect I'm in the minority on that one). However, there can be a certain smugness to his persona, as if he is trying to be just a guy you can go have a beer with (or given his Boston accent, bee-ah), but who really thinks he's smarter and better than everyone in the room, as if he has a slightly unmasked contempt for anyone who isn't Matt Damon. Perhaps it's the fact that I was put off by Dogma--no, I wasn't particularly offended or shocked by the subject matter, but I did wonder why people who are convinced they are so smart could be so dumb. If a comedy is suppose to make me laugh, well, it didn't. Of course, since I'm not Catholic but Lutheran, I wasn't as appalled by such things as the suggestion that the Perpetual Virginity of Mary was not. However, while I can't read the minds of Damon, Affleck, or Kevin Smith, I suspect the fact that they knew they would hurt and offend those they believe to be their intellectual inferiors and considered that a plus.
Nothing captures this better than his opinions on Sarah Palin. Yes, she may be an idiot (although I still find her attractive), but I just wonder why he imagines his views on her or on anything political would be either relevant or important. I wonder why a reporter would ask Damon for his worldview of a candidate. I could point out that then-Senator Obama (whom he supported) had not served out a single term as U.S. Senator and had no executive experience at all, so one wonders why HE would be a better candidate than she. It also has escaped Mr. Damon's attention that Governor Palin is a college graduate, while the Oscar-winner...isn't. If we judged intelligence by education, horror of horrors: Sarah Palin may actually be smarter than Matt Damon. To my mind, it is indicative of this sense of pseudo-intellectual superiority people like Damon and his crew have: we're actors, so automatically, we're smarter. Sometimes radio commentatrix Laura Ingraham (whom I lovingly call Mrs. Krabappel) can drive me batty, but in this case, she is completely right (no pun intended): Matthew Paige Damon, shut up and act.
I think just as Rudd's definition of Damon as actor/action star was dead on, so was another definition courtesy of Matt Parker and Trey Stone. Team America: World Police has perhaps the most accurate example of a star's vapidness, where Matt Damon can do nothing except say his name. MATT...DAMON has now become the subject of mockery due to this image of a dimwit. Now, MATT...DAMON may have been in on the joke (as he was when that embodiment of taste and sophistication, Sarah Silverman, created her I'm F*cking Matt Damon bit), but to my mind, I can't take this artiste seriously if he's willing to both mock and be mocked. Why take advise from MATT...DAMON?
Be that as it may, I will say Matt Damon is a talent. However, he isn't someone who is beloved by the American people as much as say, a Jimmy Stewart or a Sandra Bullock. Matt Damon's good, but not as good as Matt Damon (or MATT...DAMON) thinks he is. With that, I wish Matt Damon a Happy Birthday.