In Gold, Matthew McConaughey slaps on a stringy-haired bald cap and a constantly shifting paunch, along with a coating of greasy sweat, to play Kenny Wells, heir to a mining company that falls on hard times until he teams up with suave geologist Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramirez). The latter has a theory about where a massive new vein of minerals – especially gold – might be found in Indonesia, and Wells wagers everything he has left on Acosta’s guess, even coming close to death when he contracts malaria while on the expedition.
Their efforts seemingly prove fruitful, however, and before you know it, Wells and his company are the darlings of the financial sector, ringing the opening bell on Wall Street and indulging in all kinds of reckless, hedonistic and greedy behavior. Naturally, this means a fall is coming as well, but the catalyst for Wells’ self-destructive plunge is not quite who or what you’d expect.
Gold, directed by Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) and written by Patrick Massett and John Zinman, is allegedly inspired by true facts, in this case the story of David Walsh, an oil and gas magnate whose company was enmeshed in one of the biggest stock market scandals in the history of the Great White North. But the film seems more influenced directly by other recent movies, particularly The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle, that portray the meteoric and frenetic rise and fall of money-crazed individuals who let their worst impulses get the better of them once they reach the top of the financial food chain.
The writers and Gaghan – whose own scripts for Traffic and Syriana are way more nuanced – check off all the standard items on the list for a picture like this, including scenes of men celebrating on desktops by grappling with each other while waving around cigars and bottles of champagne, buttoned-up FBI agents lurking around every corner (represented this time by Toby Kebbell), and a patient and long-suffering woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) who picks the height of her man’s triumph to have her breakdown. They even throw in a third world dictator and his spoiled son for good measure.
But the template for this kind of picture is getting as ossified as those for musical and boxing biopics (and is quite similar, actually). We know where Gold is going almost every step of the way, with the possible exception of the third act plot twist that is as ludicrous as it is morally gross, ending on a note that only the likes of Donald Trump could approve.
It doesn’t help matters that in Wells, McConaughey has created one of his most distasteful and over-the-top portrayals. He lacks even the basic charm of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, and certainly the looks: with no disrespect at all toward anyone who is balding or carrying some extra weight (of which this writer fits both descriptions), McConaughey’s Wells is just hard to look at, mainly because of the exaggerated nature of his hair loss and because of the sheen of grime that seems to cover him even when he’s in a suit and tie at a fabulous dinner. And his performance is all surface theatrics, without any of the dawning inner light that helped him turn in great characterizations in Dallas Buyers Club or The Lincoln Lawyer.
Perhaps his demeanor is meant to visualize the sketchy nature of his character, but it casts aspersions on everyone else around him, including the Howard character (another actress wasted as in the same damn “dutiful girlfriend” role) and the hot blonde stockbroker who is the only other woman of note in the movie, existing only to tempt Wells. Just about everyone save Ramirez’s Acosta (whom the actor embodies with a quiet resolve and even dignity) is underwritten – which is a shame when your cast includes Corey Stoll, Bruce Greenwood, Bill Camp and others — but once again it’s the women who get the worst of it.
But that’s more or less par for the course for movies about these kinds of big swinging dicks: the ladies are either harridans or sexpots. Like almost everything else in Gold, we’ve seen and heard it all before. The movie races desperately like a mouse on a wheel to make the viewer think it’s saying something important and momentous about money and power, and loyalty, but like that mouse, it ends up in the same spot it started. To deploy a pun, this vein has already been mined for all it’s worth.