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Rachel McAdams, who stars in the second season of True Detective, was once heralded as the ‘next Julia Roberts.’Lacey Terrell

It must have all looked so bewitching on paper. You, Rachel McAdams, will spend a few paradisal months in Hawaii, shooting a movie directed by a voice of a generation, i.e. Cameron Crowe, the fella who gave us Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and that flick with John Cusack and a boombox. Your new project will also pair you with a cast that includes golden boy Bradley Cooper and the professionally effervescent Emma Stone.

For the Canadian sweetheart, whose career-pivots haven't always kept up with her Q score, the word "no-brainer" perhaps floated to mind. Yet, when Crowe's much-delayed Aloha finally did hit theatres last month, it was a lemon that didn't do McAdams any favours. Opening in sixth place, and earning some of the year's worst reviews, the dramedy was dubbed this year's Gigli and, according to one review, the type of "studio movie that gives Starbucks screenwriters a glimmer of hope and encourages L.A. Uber drivers to turn to you mid-ride and say, 'I can make a better movie than that.'"

Although McAdams was reassuringly singled out in some notices, it felt like sending kudos to the band on the Titanic. More vividly, it was emblematic of something that's dogged McAdams for some time: a knack at being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A decade ago – powered by turns in such crowd-pleasers as The Notebook, Mean Girls and Wedding Crashers – McAdams was heralded as the "next Julia Roberts." Those movies, though, have remained the ones that she's best known for, as the actress has since struggled inside the monkey-bar of Hollywood stardom, left behind by Amy Adams, who's hoarded five Oscar noms while McAdams has been tapped for exactly none. Exhibit B: Anne Hathaway, who already has her golden statuette and cinched her up-and-away role in The Devil Wears Prada when McAdams reportedly turned it down.

Mystifying the career impotence? The goodwill McAdams still evokes. Her stock remains Warren Buffett-worthy. She is plucky, yet not saccharine. She's hot, yet her BMI doesn't make you hate her. Women can see themselves going for mani-pedis with her, while men want to ride a Ducati with her. She is just edgy enough; reasonably talented on a score of 1 to Streep.

"You can feel her heart when you are acting with her," muses Jake Gyllenhaal, with whom she recently wrapped another movie. "I know the audience can, too, which is why people love to watch her." (Moreover, Rachel's value is buttressed by the fact that she can dye her hair any colour, and is gorgeous – a talent that women everywhere know is Nobel-worthy.)

In Canada, where McAdams is something of a sacred cow – there she lies with Joni Mitchell and Margaret Atwood on its Walk of Fame – the mooning over her remains particularly pronounced. There is a piousness about the fact she's made her home in Toronto, and can be more regularly spotted amongst the pies at Terroni, on Queen Street West, than enjoying McCarthy Salads at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills.

And, yet, it is perhaps this "Canadian-ness" that has skewed her ascent. Famously, she walked off the set of a 2005 Vanity Fair cover shoot, skipping out on a plan to appear on its all-important "Hollywood issue" with Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson after balking at a request to partially disrobe. Since then, McAdams has never made it back to the cover of Vanity Fair. Notably, Knightley and Johansson both have. Agnostic about the enterprise of fame, McAdams then disappeared for about two years, right when her twentysomething iron was hot. "I had to kind of reassess," she's said.

Okay, so she didn't want to be low-key, but you can be low-key and still play the game. "Ask Natalie Portman, or Michelle Williams, or Jessica Chastain," a seasoned Hollywood-watcher pointed out to me recently. The difference is that those actors have made wise career decisions. McAdams hasn't always. Take The Time Traveler's Wife, About Time and The Vow – three movies that are all variations on the same theme. Four if you count the time-shuttling Midnight in Paris. Incidentally, the Woody Allen film was a bona fide hit, but it was hardly her movie. She played "the girl." As she did in Sherlock Holmes.

Even when she's flung herself into admirable art-house mode – projects with Brian De Palma and Terrence Malick – nothing stuck. The obstacle course of female stardom is a tricky one, after all. Just ask Meg Ryan, Demi Moore or Ashley Judd – all three who once lulled near the top of the Tinseltown heap. And a reason why McAdams "needs a hit … she needs one bad," as the TV editor at Indiewire, Ben Travers, sized up recently. Enter: the safe harbour of HBO.

Starting this weekend, McAdams gets her chance at redemption in the second season of True Detective. Starring as a fiercely intelligent detective, she'll be flexing her "acting talent in what's now a widely-respected series with the pedigree of HBO dramas behind it and a smash hit in the ratings to boot," writes Travers.

Will she be able to "pull a Claire Danes," aping the trajectory of an actress who's repositioned herself via the small screen's Homeland? Get enough of an opportunity – and this is key – to shine next to the two male leads of True Detective? Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, does anyone know what Ryan Gosling is up to these days?