You know what sucks the most about Gold? Greatness is within its grasp, but in spite of its efforts, talent, and resources, the film just doesn’t dig deep enough.
Stephen Gaghan’s Gold is a poor-man’s rags-to-riches melodrama. It’s the kind of film that attracts big names because it sounds like too much fun: ugly costumes, wild animals, jungle expeditions, drug consumption, tightie whities, and Iron Maiden t-shirts. What crazy times. But Gold is weakly written, predictable, and too placid to achieve any loftier ambitions. It’s just a soft-sold tale of a schemer’s paradise.
Flash back to 1988. Matthew McConaughey is Kenny Wells, a latter-day prospector with slick hair, a protruding stomach, and a propensity for booze, Winstons, and bullshit. He’s full of neat actor adornments, but inauthentic from the get-go. Kenny is an adaptation of Bre-X Minerals’ David Walsh. Walsh was a tall, rosy-cheeked Montreal man, far less flashy than the film’s invention, so take what McConaughey does here with a grain of salt.
In reality, Walsh promoted his company and its alleged 200 million ounces of gold to the tune of $6 billion on the New York Stock Exchange. Walsh was busted, and his geologist partner Michael de Guzman – who may or may not have scammed Walsh – disappeared. Gold charts that story and how Walsh, or rather Wells, took everyone for a ride. Wells is depicted as both a true dreamer and a cautionary fable. Wells pops his P’s, drawling every last claim through his badly crowned teeth and ill-postured physique. The performance is little more than a series of showy comic juxtapositions. This sloppy guy wants to stake his claim, make a name for himself, etc. A little guy with big plans. Another way to describe it would be that McConaughey’s on auto-pilot.
Wells is on his last dime, downing Seagram’s and PBR while cold-calling investors, chasing unproven riches. But the man retains his naiveté, a true believer in the adventure and exploration of it all. He wants to be a brave cowboy, despite his lesser habits. He has all the requisite traits of this kind of character, ranging from bravado to the grotesque.
He chases a drunken delusion in the form of the “Ring of Fire.” What’s that? A rumored hotspot on the Pacific Rim that’s untapped, and potentially loaded according to down-and-out geologist and de Guzman avatar Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramírez, low-key and enigmatic). In a desperate bid to woo and ultimately profit from Acosta’s rumored claims, Wells steals and hocks his girlfriend’s jewelry to fund a ticket to Indonesia for a meeting.
The rest of this “true story” is easy to figure out, because the truth can still be prone to cliché. The two guys sniff each other out. They forge a shaky bond. Their mining operation hits snags. Wells gets sick and awakens to unforeseen fortunes. He builds a little company and makes it to Wall Street. He balks at taking his name off the company when an even bigger company wants to buy him out. He disappoints the love of his life (Bryce Dallas Howard, given next to nothing to do). He hits rock bottom. He gets back in the game. He hits rock bottom from a different direction. A couple of cutesy ‘80s tracks like “Blue Monday” and “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” pop up. There are shady, moralistic Feds, and some predictable snob v. slob class warfare. Sedate New York yuppie shenanigans. A fake-looking and stock footage-filled American gaze at foreign lands. Cluttered wealth and progress montages. Big speeches and confessions and harangues, with frequency.
This territory’s been explored a thousand times, in films like Giant or Wall Street or even There Will Be Blood, with more panache and to far greater returns. And what’s most annoying is that Gold has the capacity for something bold in that vein, but Gaghan and McConaughey never tap into how ferocious this film could be. The facts are already treated with little care, so it’s strange to see Wells portrayed as a well-off creature with no imagination. No true flair for absurdity. He just scores on a helicopter, or imagines buying a house someday, and ties way more than one off as he sweats and flops around, anxious to keep his riches. He’s not even megalomaniacal in a fascinating, Hughesian way. He’s just rich and uncouth.
Gold has no strong moments or emotions. Wells pets a tiger in an attempt to show off his “balls.” So what? Scarface had a tiger and ridiculous ‘80s rock. He’s going to fall because men like him always do. But how? (Casually passed out next to a pay phone, as it’s shown here.) And haven’t we seen that hundreds of times in more interesting styles? What’s so special about Wells? McConaughey’s prosthetic enhancements can’t hide his bluster, or his poorly written rambling. Often unwilling to rise above Gaghan’s low-fi directorial style of long takes, unusual vantages, and uninventive fades, Gold predictably scratches only the surface of its material.
All this potential for excess must have enticed the people involved. Writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman (TV’s Friday Night Lights) likely pitched it as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre meets The Wolf of Wall Street. Actually, that’s more-or-less exactly how it went down in 2011. “Based on a true story.” ‘80s-set. Greed is gauche. It’s no wonder The Weinstein Company angled for a fall prestige release in 2016.
“For better or for worse, the ride had begun. And what a goddamn ride!” Kenny says that, in voiceover. Did someone think his signature twang would mask the discount platitudes of the film’s script? It plays similarly to Homer Simpson’s college admission essay, where he concludes with “and it was the most I ever threw up, and it changed my life forever.” Gold had a big opportunity to fly its star’s fleak flag in unexpected ways. After all, Wells is loosely based on a real character. If you’re going to play in the ostentatious, have the guy that bragged about chugging martinis and masturbating in a Scorsese film do something a little wilder than briefly exposing his bare ass outside of a hot tub. There’s no medal for under-achievement.