Kenny Wells, the feckless owner of a Nevada mining company, is the latest entry in the Matthew McConaughey gallery of charming rogues. Swaybacked and paunchy, with a thinning dome and an appetite for Winstons and Seagram’s that would keep both brands in business if the rest of the world went cold turkey, Kenny doesn’t quite have the wolfish charisma or the mystical intensity of some of Mr. McConaughey’s other recent characters. But like them — like Mick Haller in “The Lincoln Lawyer,” Ron Woodroof in “Dallas Buyers Club” and that guy in those car commercials — he is fun to watch and hard not to root for.
“Gold,” which chronicles a few of Kenny’s rises and falls in the 1980s, describes itself as “inspired by actual events,” but inspiration is precisely what the film, directed by Stephen Gaghan from a script by Patrick Massett and John Zinman, seems to lack. Mr. McConaughey is a ball of profane, entrepreneurial energy bouncing around in a vacuum. The story swings from the Nevada desert to the Indonesian rain forest to Wall Street boardrooms, and the screen bristles with signifiers of capitalist activity: meetings, phone calls, stock tickers. But the movie isn’t really doing any work. It’s just looking busy.
Having nearly run the family prospecting business into the ground (so to speak), Kenny gambles on the expertise of a Mike Acosta (Édgar Ramírez), a geologist with an almost mystical reputation. They strike gold in Indonesia, and a gilded future opens up for Kenny and his longtime girlfriend, Kaylene (Bryce Dallas Howard). There are shadows and complications, of course, including the corruptions of wealth, the treachery of rivals and Kenny’s own impulsiveness. Broad hints are dropped that things will end badly.
But enough goes wrong along the way — with the movie, I mean, not with Mike and Kenny’s scheme — to make the outcome feel almost moot. The film is well cast: You can’t really go wrong with Bill Camp, Corey Stoll, Stacy Keach and Bruce Greenwood. It’s beautifully shot (you can’t go wrong with Robert Elswit, either). There is a pleasingly sleazy, swaggering, brown-tinted ’80s vibe. And there are flickering reminders of other ambitious, money-chasing mock epics, as if the filmmakers were hoping an algorithm would deposit “Gold” in the queues of viewers who liked “American Hustle,” “The Big Short” and Mr. Gaghan’s own“Syriana.”
With this material, he could have gone in any number of interesting directions, which may have been part of the problem. “Gold” could have been a biting satire of greed and folly, a neo-Conradian tale of Western misadventure in Asia, a rousing fable of underdog triumph or a caper comedy. It tries, in its frantic, clumsy fashion, to be all of those things, and comes close enough to succeeding to qualify as an honorable failure.
What holds your attention is the question of whether that description fits Kenny as well. He could just as well be the opposite — a dishonorable success. He is far from a subtle guy, but Mr. McConaughey is a sly enough actor to make us wonder whether we’re in the company of a fool or a con artist and to make us question whether there’s really a difference. His wild, abrasive and improbably delicate performance is what makes “Gold” watchable, even if the rest of the movie doesn’t supply sufficient reason to keep watching.
Review from Ny TImes Contributor