'Gold': Film Review

Doesn’t hit the mother lode, despite an ace lead performance.

In an adventure drama inspired by true events, Matthew McConaughey and Edgar Ramirez star as business partners whose underdog mining enterprise puts them on the high-finance map.

Kenny Wells, the indefatigable wildcat prospector at the center of Gold, is a classic American striver — but without the classic American sheen. Potbellied, balding, snaggletoothed, hard-drinking and chain-smoking, he’s played by Matthew McConaughey with a marrow-deep understanding of what makes this desperate dreamer tick. Beyond the actor’s striking physical transformation, his aptly showy turn is the stuff of muck, sweat and dreams, and every instant of it burns true. As robust as the lead performance is, though, the movie around it, directed by Stephen Gaghan from a screenplay by Patrick Massett and John Zinman, too often feels serviceable rather than inspired.

The story of Wells’ Indonesian venture with a legendary geologist (Edgar Ramirez), their discovery of gold deposits of historic proportions and their subsequent tangles with Wall Street bears all the earmarks of surefire Oscar lure, at least on paper. But as the drama launches its qualifying run before a wide release in January, awards momentum has yet to materialize. (Its single Golden Globe nomination is for the Iggy Pop-crooned title song.) Whether the Academy’s actors’ branch puts McConaughey in the race is yet to be seen. Then again, Kenny Wells might not be the right capitalist antihero for these times.

Taking its plotline cues from a 1997 mining scandal involving Canadian outfit Bre-X, the feature relocates the home-company action from Calgary to Reno, aka “the biggest little city in the world” and a setting that perfectly underscores the gambler impulse that defines the main character. It’s also a town where streets are named after Wells’ family, whose Washoe Mining Corporation has been a leading local business since his grandfather founded it.

A 1981 prologue shows Kenny in the glow of McConaughey-familiar looks and swagger as his father (Craig T. Nelson) places key account responsibilities in his hands. But the main action takes place seven years later, amid a general economic downturn and the bottom of the barrel for Kenny, who has lost his house and is living with longtime girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard), a sturdy salt-of-the-earth type. What’s left of Washoe operates out of the bar where she waitresses, and bankers won’t give Kenny the time of day.

Kenny’s can-do spirit is coiled and ready to pounce when, in a whiskey-fueled vision, he remembers geologist Michael Acosta (Ramirez), the man behind a landmark copper strike in Indonesia and proponent of a theory about untapped reserves of gold. One trip to the pawn shop and Kenny is in Southeast Asia, a penniless spieler who convinces the inscrutable Acosta to partner with him because he’s one of the “make-it-happen motherfers.”

What unfolds amid the stateside fundraising and jungle excavation is a double romance: There’s Kenny’s love for Kay and, more to the story’s point, his love and admiration for Acosta. Neither strand has the impact it should, but Howard makes more of an impression. Ramirez mostly appears uncomfortable as the chalk to Kenny’s cheese. Impeccable even in tropical heat, Acosta is a man of few words who, in some of the screenplay’s best exchanges, coolly shoots down Kenny’s stabs at sentimentality.

But a certain type of sentimental male bond is at the core of Gold as much as the romance of the search for the precious metal. After their search pays off, the modern-day Mutt and Jeff are a more or less united force — able to resist, in different ways and to varying degrees, the big-business allurements of a New York investment banker (Corey Stoll) and a gazillionaire competitor (Bruce Greenwood). Kenny sees no reason to repel the interest of an aggressively flirtatious finance hotshot (Rachael Taylor), while on home turf, he’s in the doghouse with Kay and back in the good graces of the banker (Stacy Keach) whose lackeys once turned him away.

Heightening the disconnect between Manhattan and Reno, designers Maria Djurkovic and Danny Glicker give us Kenny enjoying the luxury of his Waldorf suite in his tighty whities, and Kay facing dismissive glances when she strides into a business soiree in a garish metallic dress. Among the business-black conformity of high-powered Gotham, all that glitters isn’t gold.

The screenplay by TV vets Massett and Zinman (Friday Night Lights), whose only previous produced feature is Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, has an assured grasp of mining and finance lingo. And McConaughey excels at drawing unexpected music from his lines. But the movie leans too much on his voiceover, giving the narrative a cobbled-together feel rather than a full-throttle rush. With the accomplished cinematographer Robert Elswit at the lens and a smart, percussive score by Daniel Pemberton, that reliance on literal explanation feels like second-guessing.

Another narrative framing device, a series of flash-forwards to an interview between Kenny and an unidentified questioner (Toby Kebbell), whose role is revealed along with the story’s main twist, is more effective than the v.o. narration, though it too pulls the viewer out of the drama.

Gaghan, working with a far more accessible screenplay than his own for Syriana, delivers some strong individual scenes and judiciously employs split screens to excellent effect, uniting the unlikely partners when they’re working on separate continents. He and Elswit capture the essence of the movie’s disparate locations. The Indonesia sequences, filmed in Thailand under reportedly treacherous physical conditions, convey the steamy temperatures as well as the emerald lushness of the setting.

Whether in the booth of a dingy bar or on a jungle river, Kenny Wells approaches life with a headlong fervor that makes him suspect. But he’s no flimflam man; he’s a believer. McConaughey has said that his father was an inspiration for his performance, which ranks among his best. The actor’s intensity never flags. What’s missing from this story of struggle and glory and the need to believe is a fever to match his.

Distributor: TWC-Dimension
Production companies: Black Bear Pictures, Highway 61 Films, Boies/Schiller Films
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Stacey Keach, Bill Camp, Joshua Harto, Timothy Simons, Craig T. Nelson, Bruce Greenwood, Adam LeFevre, Rachael Taylor
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Screenwriters: Patrick Massett, John Zinman
Producers: Teddy Schwarzman, Michael Nozik, Patrick Massett, John Zinman, Matthew McConaughey
Executive producers: Paul Haggis, Richard Middleton, Ben Stillman, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, David Glasser
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: Maria Djurkovic
Costume designer: Danny Glicker
Editors: Douglas Crise, Rick Grayson
Composer: Daniel Pemberton
Casting: Avy Kaufman

Rated R, 120 minutes