Somewhere in the universe there may be a dimension where “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “American Hustle,” “Inherent Vice” or even “The Founder” don’t exist. In that world, “Gold” — in which Matthew McConaughey packed on 40 pounds of paunch to play an ’80s-era prospector who may or may not be a gold-plated financial scam artist — could be a godsend. In this world, “Gold” feels like a story that’s been told before and better.
Inspired by actual events that led to a major gold-industry scandal, the film focuses on a fictionalized character, Kenny Wells (McConaughey), a hard-drinkin’, chain-smokin’ hustler who’s determined to live up to the legacy of his late prospector father. At the helm of his dad’s Nevada mining company, he almost loses it all in the financial crisis of the mid-’80s.
Yet Wells dreams of finding the world’s largest gold deposits, and he thinks he may be on to something when he teams with Indonesian-based geologist Michael Acosta (a good Edgar Ramirez). Acosta is scorned by many of his professional brethren but claims to know how to find gold in inaccessible areas based on his theories about the Pacific Rim’s “ring of fire.”
Like a late-night Las Vegas gambler down to his last dollar, Wells invests everything he has in the venture. That drives a wedge between Wells and his girlfriend, Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard), who doesn’t quite comprehend his obsession.
The scheme almost kills him as he’s knocked out with malaria while prospecting with Acosta and his crew in the wilds of Indonesia. He raises millions of Wall Street dollars and bonds with Acosta, a man equally driven and misunderstood. And he might become very rich.
Director Stephen Gaghan (the superior “Syriana”), working from a script by the team of Patrick Massett and John Zinman (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”), seems to want to say something about the vagaries of capitalism, but exactly what — beyond that it’s hard out here for a miner — is not very clear. If the story had focused on the Acosta character, based on the very real and apparently very mysterious Filipino geologist Mike de Guzman, it might have made for a more compelling case.
But instead, we get an Americanized story with a fictional character at its center.
Having said that, McConaughey throws himself into the role with an entertaining gusto, going all Fat Elvis on us and totally trashing his “all right, all right, all right” playboy persona like a child with a hammer. With a balding pate, a spreading gut and a willingness to run around in unsightly underwear (or nothing at all), McConaughey gets to give the kind of performance that’s difficult to ignore. (Though it looks like Oscar voters did just that, as he didn’t receive a best-actor nomination this week.) There are also strong supporting performances from the always reliable Corey Stoll and Toby Kebbell.
Gaghan, along with composer Daniel Pemberton and music supervisor Linda Cohen, provides an eclectic ’80s musical accompaniment that goes beyond the new-wave cliches. The title track, sung by Iggy Pop, was nominated for a Golden Globe, and the rest of the soundtrack — including Richard and Linda Thompson as well as Kishi Bashi’s shimmering cover of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place” — is refreshing in its melancholy beauty even if it’s not the kind of music any of the “Gold” characters probably would have been playing.
So, it’s not like the film should have been called “Lead” instead. There’s enough here to maintain interest, especially for McConaughey fans who will appreciate the showy performance. But you know what they say about all that glitters.
Rated R. Time: 2:01.