McConaughey’s ‘Gold’ isn’t the rich film it could have been

The pursuit of gold is fraught with peril, whether you’re talking about the actual mineral or the statues that are being handed out by the truckload this time of year.

It’s why so few find success when they set out to claim either.

“Gold” is a prime example of both.

The writing team of Patrick Massett and John Zinman (“Friday Night Lights”) took the scandal involving Canada’s Bre-X Minerals that unraveled in 1997 and transported it to Reno in the 1980s in a clear bid for awards-season glory.

Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) is the son of a mining legend (Craig T. Nelson), with a gorgeous girlfriend (a nearly unrecognizable Bryce Dallas Howard) and a bright future.

Cut to seven years later, and Kenny is balding, beer-bellied and barely staying afloat. He’s fumbled away the mining legacy of his father and grandfather, their Washoe Mining Co. is about to go under — the stock is trading at 4 cents a share, “if it was trading at all” — and he’s working out of a bar.

Then one night, Kenny has a dream about Indonesian gold, and the next morning he’s pawning jewelry — some of it his, some of it not — and hopping a flight to Indonesia to meet with geologist Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), who years ago discovered the region’s largest copper strike.

 

Kenny and Mike have been written off in mining circles and are desperate to make a comeback — so much so that their partnership contract is penned on a napkin and sealed with a handshake.

After scraping together what little money they can from friends, neighbors and other dreamers, they set up camp in the jungle in — I don’t even know what you’d call it; even the word “hut” would be too extravagant. But sometime during the rain-soaked weeks Kenny spends in a malarial haze, Mike hits pay dirt with what’s believed to be the largest gold strike of the century — if not all time.

Suddenly, they’re the toasts of the financial world. Kenny’s ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, where a new IPO closes at $70 a share, and being interviewed by a reporter from Gold Digger magazine, which is not, apparently, a journal for aspiring trophy wives.

From there, “Gold” is the story of Kenny’s struggles to hold onto his mine and his dream and keep them both away from outsiders, ranging from the Wall Street big shot (Corey Stoll) who privately refers to him as a “drunken raccoon” to a powerful mining mogul (Bruce Greenwood).

At one point, Kenny, who’s every bit as proud as he is in over his head, turns down a $300 million buyout. “You sell your dream,” he says, “what do you have left?” Well, $300 million for starters.

Directed by Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”), “Gold” had the chance to be “The Wolf of Wall Street” meets “The Big Short.” But it needed either a lighter comedic touch or a darker dramatic one. Instead, it falls into the cinematic netherworld. It’s interesting but feels empty. Considering how much of the real scandal is fictionalized, so many bolder, more entertaining deviations from history could have been made.

McConaughey, who gained 40 pounds for the role, presumably just for the one brief scene where he’s shirtless in the glow of a refrigerator, brings some of his signature jangly lightning to the role. It just doesn’t strike nearly as often as you’d hope.

As a result, “Gold” is all right.

It’s just not up to McConaughey’s typical standards of being “awright, awright, awright.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @life_onthecouch.

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