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McConaughey's elusive quest

Actor attempts to grab box-office glory with 'Sahara'

By Stephanie Snipes

McConaughey drove across the country, pulling his personal Airstream trailer, to promote "Sahara."
Matthew McConaughey
Clive Cussler
Penelope Cruz

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- In Matthew McConaughey's world, adventurous undertakings such as backpacking across African deserts and floating down the Amazon River are normal occurrences, while blockbuster films and critical acclaim remain a seemingly intangible pursuit.

Sure, teenage girls all over the globe shudder at the sight of his piercing blue eyes, and get weak at the knees at the languid tones of his Southern accent, but in the land of ticket sales and million-dollar deals McConaughey falls flat.

"Early in his career he was touted as the new 'it' boy and never quite demonstrated that. While he was a pretty boy, like Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, he's failed to score either the critical praise or the box-office payoff that those guys have," says Tom O'Neil, senior editor of In Touch Weekly magazine.

A few of his films have managed to make it to the $100 million mark. But for every "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" and "A Time to Kill" there have been five "Reign of Fires" and "EdTVs." Neither of which brought in enough domestic revenue to payoff their multi-million dollar budgets.

At first glance, one might wonder if the laid back, self-proclaimed country boy even cares. But a recent six-week, 6,000-mile road trip across the United States to promote his new action film, "Sahara," proves that the actor has more invested in his career than he lets on.

In a very un-Hollywood approach to schmoozing with the public and press, McConaughey drove himself around in a Ford F-250 pickup towing his personal Airstream trailer (donned with a "Sahara" ad). He even slept at campgrounds and cooked hot dogs on the grill.

"My favorite thing to do between working is go drive around the roads and highways of America camping out. So this time I'm still camping out, but I also have my house -- my canoe -- wrapped in a 'Sahara' billboard. So [I'm] combining the two -- a road trip, plus I'm selling. It's nice," said McConaughey, decked out from head to toe in "Sahara" gear, leaning casually in a director's chair and gnawing on a toothpick at Georgia's Stone Mountain Park.

And selling he's done. McConaughey, whose "j.k. livin" productions is co-producing the film, passed out thousands of T-shirts and hats, attended screenings with locals and even served as the grand marshal for the Daytona 500 in February.

It seems the uber-tour may have worked some magic. "Sahara" grabbed the top spot at the weekend box office, albeit with a low-key $18.5 million haul (the film cost an estimated $130 million to make). He also earned some positive reviews.

"Matthew McConaughey was born to play this type of character with his roguish swagger and puckish grin, and he dives into the part with impressive vigor," said the Los Angeles Times' Kevin Crust.

'Echoes of distant bongos'

"Sahara" has been a labor of love for the first-time producer. The film, based on a bestselling Dirk Pitt novel by Clive Cussler, tells the story of Pitt's treasure hunt in search of the "Ship of Death," a Civil War-era ironclad that protects a secret cargo. McConaughey plays Pitt, the hero of several Cussler books.

McConaughey co-stars with Penelope Cruz in "Sahara."

Getting Cussler to hand over the rights to his novel was a time-consuming and expensive process. In the end it cost producers $10 million for the rights to all 18 Dirk Pitt books. If a movie is made from a work, Cussler gets an additional $10 million, according to the Los Angeles Times. Cussler also got final script and cast approval.

Sitting in the director's chair is newcomer Breck Eisner, a TV and commercial director, and son of Disney honcho Michael Eisner.

Steve Zahn ("That Thing You Do!"), William H. Macy ("The Cooler") and McConaughey's real-life girlfriend, Penelope Cruz ("Vanilla Sky") also star.

The character of Pitt is a dramatic departure from the roles that have managed to bring McConaughey success, such as clean-cut advertising executive Ben Barry in "How to Lose a Guy" and David Wooderson, pothead extraordinaire, in "Dazed and Confused."

While "Sahara" has some things going for it -- big action sequences and an epic nature, the downside, according to O'Neil, outweighs the good.

"It's a lightweight 'Lost Ark' wannabe," says O'Neil, comparing the film to 1981's debut Indiana Jones tale, "Raiders of the Lost Ark." "['Ark'] was everything Matthew hopes this movie is, and is not."

Critics have been all over the map with the film.

"It may not be 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' but 'Sahara' ... is a movie that keeps half a brain in its head while adopting the amused, cocky smirk of the Indiana Jones romps," wrote New York Times movie critic Steven Holden.

Glenn Whipp of the Los Angeles Daily News, however, described it as "a mediocre action-adventure flick that's compelling only for its strange mixture of B-movie elements and a completely hollow social consciousness."

So, why can't this seemingly talented and charismatic actor make the transition to box-office powerhouse? The question is almost as hard to pin down as the treasure Pitt and his cohorts are searching for.

But O'Neil has a theory that McConaughey's 1999 arrest, in which the actor was taken to jail after police found him in possession of drug paraphernalia, naked and playing conga drums (not bongos, as was originally reported), may play a big part in the rough road his career has taken.

"It's possible that he's still haunted by the party-boy image, by the echoes of those distant bongos. Seriously, those bongos will continue to reverberate and echo throughout his career because it's such a ridiculous scene. It makes him seem ridiculous," O'Neil says.

"There he is dancing naked at 3 in the morning, stoned, hauled off after the cops make him put his pants on. And while he paid only a $50 fine that night, he's paying a much steeper price in his career."

But McConaughey laughed off the incident to USA Today Wednesday.

"I understand, nudity and music, bongos. It was congas, too! But I guess 'bongos' fit the meter a little better," he said.

Critical assessments aside, the audience will be the ultimate judge on what success McConaughey will have in his career. In the short time CNN spent speaking with the actor, McConaughey was very focused on the success of his new film, but inevitably the well-traveled Texan turned the focus ever so briefly to his true passion.

"Travel has been my favorite and most important thing for me as far as my education -- my outlook on life. Traveling different places that seem so different and staying there long enough to see that we are all just the same," he said.

"Everyone seems to be out for the same thing: having a roof over our head, trying to have a little food and take care of our loved ones. After that, it's kind of luxuries, you know?"

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