In 1993, a Filipino prospector named Michael de Guzman emerged from the jungles of Busang, Indonesia claiming to have found one of the largest gold deposits on record — he partnered with a Canadian conglomerate called Bre-X Minerals Ltd., and eventually took the fall for the most famous gold mining scandal of the late 20th century.
In 2011, screenwriters Patrick Massett and John Zinman (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”) decided to take the Bre-X story, arbitrarily transplant it to the late 1980s, and re-conceive it as a trite rise and fall parable about the seduction of the American Dream — the result, ultimately directed without distinction by Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”), unfolds like a chintzy ripoff of David O. Russell ripping off Martin Scorsese ripping off real life, a movie that tries to sell us the most boring version of a story that has already been panned for all of its treasure and then some.
The limp final chapter of Matthew McConaughey’s informal “Treasure Hunter” trilogy (the first two installments obviously being “Sahara” and “Fool’s Gold,” masterpieces both), “Gold” begins in the arid deserts of Nevada, where third-generation prospector Kenny Wells (McConaughey) is struggling to reconcile his personal disappointments with the limitlessness of capitalism.
Potbellied, balding, and entirely fictitious, Kenny is sort of like a sweaty polyester version of Christian Bale’s character from “American Hustle.” He’s cursed with a clear sense of what’s possible (and some very underdeveloped daddy issues), he knows what’s out there, and he isn’t satisfied with the life he’s built with his loving wife, Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard, excellent but underused). The year is 1988, Black Monday has led to a lot of gray weeks, and no one knows what the future holds.
And then, one fateful night, Kenny Wells has a dream — a literal dream — that sends him to the jungles of Borneo in search of a kindred spirit named Michael Acosta (a cagey Édgar Ramírez, who delivers virtually the same performance he did in the ill-fated “Point Break” remake). The two men head out into the green wilderness, Kenny comes down with a wicked case of malaria, and is riled back to his senses a few weeks later by the news that he and his partner have struck it crazy rich. That’s when it’s revealed that Kenny’s dull voiceover isn’t narration, but rather testimony he’s delivering to a trio of suspicious F.B.I. agents.
“There’s no right or wrong in this business” goes one of the many aphorisms that “Gold” mistakes for substantive dialogue. “Only hits or misses.” And New Order songs. Because remember, it’s the ’80s for some reason.
Money may have no morals, but Kenny does, and it’s amusing enough to watch McConaughey sift through this hackneyed script in search of something he can use to provide the character with some humanity and depth. Beautifully described as “A raccoon who’s gotten his hands on the Hope Diamond,” Kenny is a cartoon who’s made real by his need for validation, not his greed. Dumb luck and desperation are only part of the equation for this fictitious composite of American ideology, a man who’s vulnerable to gargantuan mistakes because he’s blinded by the belief that a person’s worth can only be measured in dollars.
As unfocused and severely underwritten as it may be, his story at least feels cohesive because it never prioritizes the hedonistic pleasures of spending money over the ineffable satisfaction of having it — it never loses sight of how wealth can be its own reward for someone who just wants people to feel like he earned it. That “Gold” only pays occasional lip service to the transformative power of Kenny’s partnership with Michael, his apparent belief in him, is one of its greatest failings. “I went looking for gold and found a friend,” Kenny tells Michael, a terrible line that’s laughed off but intended to pull serious dramatic weight.
Over time, “Gold” becomes nothing more than a masterclass in watching a great actor try to build a fortune out of dirt, McConaughey — a man so inherently watchable that his affect alone elevated a series of car commercials into a meme — silting every line with enough vocal fry that the words almost seem to be hiding something under the surface. But it’s only a matter of time before the fraud is exposed, the movie sacrificing a fascinating crime story in favor of a sleepy economic morality play that never pans out.
“Gold” will play in Los Angeles for a one-week awards qualifying run beginning on December 31. It will open in theaters nationwide on January 27, 2017.