There’s a well-known maxim in Hollywood: the best way for an actor to get an Oscar is to play a role in which he or she is ugly or disfigured. See Charlize Theron in Monster, or Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Typically, this strategy only works in tandem with one other element – the movie showcasing the performance must be good or interesting in some way. Matthew McConaughey has the first part down in his new film, Gold. He isn’t exactly disfigured in the movie, but to lose his trademark good looks for a role amounts to the same thing. He plays an average schmo, complete with a potbelly and male-pattern baldness. That’s the most interesting thing about the movie, and it’s not nearly enough to salvage the mishandled structure and uninteresting story.
Inspired by actual events, Gold is about Kenny Wells (McConaughey), a third-generation gold prospector and failing businessman who sinks the last of his fleeting funds into a mining project in Indonesia. The movie is primarily set in 1988, and the opening scene shows us that the world of gold prospecting is no longer old men with long beards panning for the mineral in a stream. The industry has been financialized, run by men (and only men) in suits whose businesses’ stocks rise and fall based on the strength of their current mine deposits.
Wells has run his father’s company into the ground, and he’s looking for one last opportunity to get back on top. Enter Michael Acosta, a geologist who has also fallen on hard times. Acosta pioneered a theory that gold deposits are linked to tectonic plate activity, and when it didn’t result in the massive gold discoveries he promised, his financial backers lost faith in him. Wells pawns his girlfriend’s watch to fly to Indonesia for a meeting with Acosta. Wells believes in the geologist’s latest hunch, and vows to back him financially so the two men can prove the world wrong about them both.
Gold is actually an entertaining movie, if unevenly so. Most of that entertainment value comes from McConaughey’s performance as Kenny Wells. It’s hard not to laugh as Wells and Acosta celebrate the discovery of an unimaginably huge gold deposit. That’s mostly because it comes as Wells is recovering from a bout of malaria, and McConaughey is leaping into actor Édgar Ramirez’s arms in his tighty-whiteys, pot-belly on full display.
The film is frustrating because writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman botched the tale of gold digging, corporate intrigue, and, finally, a criminal investigation on a basic structural level. At many points during the movie, Wells gives the audience details about the operation through voice-over narration. These passages seem odd and out of place, considering he’s usually describing exactly what’s happening on screen. It’s only after the mid-way point that we learn he’s actually talking to federal investigators, who are questioning Wells about Acosta’s whereabouts following a scandal involving their huge gold mine discovery. Massett and Zinman reveal pieces of the puzzle in such a way that it makes Gold more of a frustrating experience than an intriguing one.
This lack of cohesive storytelling is even more surprising considering the director of Gold is an accomplished screenwriter himself. Stephen Gaghan was responsible for two of the most tightly wound and complex scripts of the aughts – 2000’s Traffic, and 2005’s Syriana. Gold tries to capture the same sense of intrigue, but comes nowhere close to those two films in execution. The character Mark Hancock, a billionaire magnate who runs the most successful gold mining operation on the planet, is a good example of this. Hancock is anxious to buy out Wells and Acosta’s find. No dramatic tension comes out of the subplot, however, besides a scene that allows McConaughey to go apoplectic when he realizes the deal will mean his name is erased from the massive gold discovery.
There are also moments in Gold that feel too good to be true, even though the story is “inspired by true events.” When the business partners run afoul of Hancock, and he uses his connections with the Indonesian government to double cross them, they are forced to use their own connections to gain the upper hand. Wells comes face to face with a wild tiger to gain the respect of the Indonesian president’s son. And while McConaughey sells the scene completely, even a moment of reflection leads to the realization that a healthy dose of artistic license was probably at play here.
In addition to these shenanigans is the boring and dramatically inert subplot involving the relationship between Wells and his longtime girlfriend, Kay, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Kay is a waitress at the bar where Wells spends much of his time. She is prepared to stand by her man because she truly loves him. When the jackpot finally comes, Kay is overwhelmed by the sudden and immense success that comes with the Indonesian gold discovery. That success leads to the exact plot turn you might expect when Wells and Kay attend a party to celebrate. Wells, drunk and riding high on his own hubris, begins flirting with a beautiful executive in attendance, sending Kay into a rage. It doesn’t help matters that Howard gives an uneven performance, losing and regaining her country twang accent depending on the scene.
Part The Wolf of Wall Street, part The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Gold fails to reproduce the highs of either. It’s marginally enjoyable in the moment, but fades from memory as soon as it ends. Despite the best receding hair line prosthetics money could buy and the commitment to gain 45 pounds, it’s easy to see why Matthew McConaughey, and Gold, were completely ignored when it came time to hand out award nominations.
Why it got 2 stars:
- Gold brings to mind my favorite Gertrude Stein quote. "There is no there there." There's just not much to get excited about here. McConaughey is fun, and engaged in his performance, but he's adrift in a pretty bland movie.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I read a few things other people are saying about the movie, mostly that it's a poorly executed meditation on toxic capitalism. Along the lines of what I said above, Gold never grabbed enough of my attention for me to make those kinds of connections.