I have this recurring dream of winning some enormous jackpot in a casino. Taking it as a sign, I have gone to the casino a couple of times and lost much more money than I have made. There was no way of knowing that it would turn out to be a waste of time of money, but the addictive allure that taking chances like these provides is often hard to resist. The power of chance takes over, and much like blindly mining for a precious metal, gambling without realizing the odds, or even going to the theater to see a movie with a great cast, we take the risk and usually wind up disappointed. Just because you’re on a hot streak (career-wise), it doesn’t mean it will last as you will soon find out with Matthew McConaughey in Gold.
Television writing duo Patrick Massett and John Zinman (Friday Night Lights) tackle this “based on a true story” film with the same approach you would do a book report on a book you only read the Wikipedia summary of. Massett and Zinman present to us the story of Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey), a mostly unrelatable, unlikable character who happens to accidentally (and idiotically) stumble into millions of dollars in unmined gold. The story centers around Wells’ daddy issues-fueled journey from misfortune to fortune and right back to misfortune. There is no character development outside of trying to sacrifice every other character to boost the importance of Wells. This was the film’s biggest mistake, trying to emotionally invest in a morally bankrupt character whose greatest trait is the ability to fail forward. Time would have been better spent exploring the moral dilemma of Wells’ partner Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) and the process that led to him masterminding the entire fraud while at the same time showing vulnerability and depth.
Director Stephen Gaghan returns to feature film directing after over a decade long hiatus, and it seems atrophy has set in. In Gold, Gaghan attempts to channel the energy and technique of past Wall Street/business heavy films by highlighting the overindulgence, hyper-sexuality, exotic locations with exotic animals (a tiger, not a wolf this time around) and self-destructive spirals every one of these genre films has. The visual approach is the same as Wolf of Wall Street, except Leonardo DiCaprio’s character may be morally bankrupt but manages to be tragically charming. McConaughey’s character is neither charming or redeemable, and we find this out very soon after meeting him. Gaghan puts everything into trying to humanizing Wells, having him (over)narrate his story in an attempt to establish some sort of vulnerability or inspire sympathy. It fails spectacularly. Gaghan goes through the motions and gives us techniques and material he once was able to make dynamic. The weight and social commentary on the crimes of Wall Street against the average American doesn’t carry anywhere near the same severity and conviction as Gaghan’s previous films, like Syriana.
Even though every other aspect of the film was lackluster, the all-star cast had every potential to shine. Great actors like Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard and Corey Stoll each have the talent to elevate whatever (shitty) film they may find themselves in, but as a testament to how terribly written Gold was, they were all but wasted. Wasted might be the wrong word because they were actually sacrificed, offered as a tribute to McConaughey’s character development. Too bad they were offered up in vain. McConaughey, as with every character, is all in. The problem lies with both the character and the performance, having neither been strong enough to keep our attention or garner any emotional investment. If anything, it was the fact that McConaughey came on too strong that was the biggest detriment to this film. His performance was the single most off-putting aspect, and I’m not just talking about how often we saw him unnecessarily naked. Imagine visiting your grandparents and then accidentally walking in on your grandpa naked, and you’ve arrived at the tone for the entire film: disgust.
Like the mining expedition, Gold was doomed from the very beginning. No amount of star power or emulation of much better films could have transmuted Gold into anything more than a common metal. After watching Gold, I reappropriated a nursery rhyme to summarize my thoughts on the film. Make new films, don’t copy the old. The techniques are silver, but the outcome is fool’s Gold.
Gold is now out in theaters.