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Smart Matt Damon Is Hot Matt Damon

Matt Damon’s “The Martian” is in theaters this weekend. And the film, in which Damon plays a botanist marooned on Mars, is Damon’s second turn as a brilliant astronaut in the past year. He showed up halfway through “Interstellar” to ruin Matthew McConaughey’s otherwise awful space adventure.

Why is Damon being cast to go to space so much? This wasn’t the Damon I signed up for when I saw peak Damon in 1999’s “Dogma.”1 It feels like Damon is getting cast as the smart guy more than ever, at least to me, and is moving on from life as the standard good-looking, dreamy actor who could hold down an action or comedic role. This, as it turns out, is totally wrong. But while there’s no evidence of a plot to make Damon into our foremost scientific avatar — a Christopher Lloyd for the @NASA era — there’s shocking evidence for something else: The Generalized Theory of Matt Damon’s Brainy Dreaminess.

I set up two separate head-to-head contests to find the roles that featured Damon at his most brainy, and separately, at his most dreamy. I put the brainy test on the Darwinian brainstorming site All Our Ideas, which allows users to pit ideas head to head in a crowdsourced competition. This gave respondents two Damon roles — written out in text — and asked them to select the smarter Damon character.2 The other contest — jury-rigged over a few hours on a domain I snagged — presented respondents with pictures of Damon from two randomly selected film appearances and asked them to identify the “dreamier” Damon.

Through the wisdom of the totally unscientifically selected crowds — more than 17,000 head-to-head matchups on dreaminess and 3,400 matchups on intellect — I was able to get a solid data set on the true state of our Damons. All Our Ideas spits out a derived probability that each submission would win over some other, randomly selected idea; rather than reinventing the wheel, I accepted their probabilities as the “smartness” rating. As for the dreaminess rankings, I calculated maximum likelihood ratings for the 47 Damon characters for which I was able to get a clear image from the film. Maximum likelihood is an algorithm used to figure out relative team strength in sports based strictly on wins and losses, so I applied the algorithm and calculated the probability that a given Damon role would beat the average Damon in dreaminess.

My hypothesis was shattered. There’s not a relationship between year of film release and Damon’s appearance or intellect. Damon continues to play characters perceived as smart and not smart, dreamy and less dreamy. There is, however, a relationship between intellect and dreaminess: The more attractive Damon is perceived to be in a movie, the smarter he is perceived to be.

hickey-datalab-damon

This, frankly, left me floored. Recall that there was absolutely no visual prompt for people who rated Damon’s relative smarts in each of the films. They were working from a text prompt that included the film’s title, Damon’s character’s name and the release year. But there is an unmistakable correlation between the relative win probabilities for both smarts and dreaminess.

Films such as “Good Will Hunting,” “The Martian,” and the three Jason Bourne and three Ocean’s Eleven movies all had Damon rated as highly intelligent as well as particularly dreamy-looking. In fairness, he’s playing a savant, an astronaut, a spy and a talented thief, respectively. In the other direction, performances in “Stuck on You” and “EuroTrip” saw Damon rated as not particularly dreamy nor intelligent, and needless to say “We Bought a Zoo” fares poorly here too, given that the conceit consists of easily the worst financial decision a person could make, and Damon appeared to steal Mark Wahlberg’s worst haircut for the film.

Some of this relationship is undoubtedly simply because better-known films do better in a given head-to-head matchup — on both variables. On the other hand, the middling performance of some of Damon’s best-known roles on one or the other variable seems to indicate that there’s more going on.

For example, “Saving Private Ryan,” the Steven Spielberg film where Damon played a doe-eyed MacGuffin, had one of the biggest disparities in how Damon’s looks were perceived compared with his brains; Damon was 22 percentage points more dreamy in that movie than he was brainy. In “Interstellar” Damon plays Dr. Mann — a brilliant asshole — and sees his career-highest differential between smarts and looks, a 32-point advantage for smarts. Other roles where the character has more brains than smoldering good looks include “Elysium,” where he plays a busted-up soldier in the future; “The Zero Theorem,” where he’s aged substantially; and “The Informant!” where he plays a geeky whistleblowing executive at a food-processing conglomerate.

Perhaps this is a strictly Damon-specific phenomenon, or — far more interestingly — there could be a potential Generalized Theory of Brainy Dreaminess out there. Only further analysis can truly determine the extent of this effect.

The main takeaway is that if Damon is looking good in a movie, based on his oeuvre there’s a pretty good chance you’re dealing with a smart Damon character, and if he’s got the Damon Signature Crappy Mustache, you are probably not dealing with a rocket surgeon.

With “The Martian,” will Damon do for botanists what Jeff Goldblum did for mathematicians, Harrison Ford did for archaeologists or Natalie Portman did for astrophysicists?3 It’s hard to say, but I suppose this goes a long way toward explaining why so many people are gunning to bring Mark Watney home.

Footnotes

  1. ”Dogma” is the best Damon movie, by the way. I have gotten into fights over this before and will do so again.
  2. I deliberately did not include a photograph in this test: We’re looking for perception of intellect, not how “bookish” Damon looks.
  3. You know, set an unrealistic standard for appearance within the profession.

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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