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At Best a Bronze

Mathew McConaughey
Matthew McConaughey
The Weinstein Company
 120 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Stephen Gaghan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez

A more accurate title for Matthew McConaughey’s latest movie, Gold, might be Fool’s Gold, in recognition of his character, a man whose search for the lustrous metal lands him way, way over his head in a world of high finance and cutthroat wheeling and dealing. Unfortunately, that latter title was already taken by a 2008 McConaughey film, so we have to make do with the more generic title. Similarly, the current movie bears a considerable resemblance to actual iron pyrite—it gliiters a bit here and there, especially in McConaughey’s lively performance, but can’t compare to genuine 24k productions about business and high finance like The Wolf of Wall Street or the recent Ray Kroc biography, The Founder.


Gold is loosely based on the actual rise and fall of a Canadian mining company in the 1990’s. To give it some more glitz (or, possibly, to avoid potential legal difficulties), the movie is set in Nevada a decade earlier. The film opens in 1981 with Kenny Wells is doing well as the heir apparent of Washoe Mining Company, a small but thriving family operation in Reno. Fast forward seven years, however, and Kenny’s father (Craig T. Nelson) is gone, as is much of Kenny’s hair and the swanky offices the company once occupied. In their place, Kenny’s got an extra 40 pounds of gut, and he and his salesmen work out of the bar where his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) waits tables. And, by “work,” I mean that they make increasingly desperate pitches to increasingly fewer and more skeptical investors about their latest venture searching for a gold strike.


This latest venture happens to be in Indonesia, where a geologist, Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), tells anyone who will listen that a huge amount of gold is located. Both desperate and excited, Kenny hocks his watch and the ring he gave his girlfriend years earlier and bankrolls Acosta’s expedition. The two men embark on a Heart of Darkness-style adventure to a remote location where Acosta tells him should be the location of a rich ore vein. Kenny contracts malaria and nearly dies, but Edgar finds the mother lode, a deposit that’s among the largest the world has seen.


Overnight, Kenny and Edgar become celebrities in the precious metals community. Potential financial backers who wouldn’t give Kenny the time of day weeks earlier, like good old boy Clive Coleman (Stacy Keach), now claim to be long-time family friends. An investment banker (Corey Stoll) from a major Wall Street firm helps Kenny take Washoe Mining public, at which point, the world’s biggest metals tycoon (Bruce Greenwood) offers Kenny a ton of money to let him take over Kenny’s company. Along the way, Kenny becomes addicted to the lifestyle of the rich and famous and falls for the charms of a corporate analyst (Rachael Taylor) with more than tallying numbers on her mind. 


It doesn’t take a Wall Street tycoon to realize that what goes up is likely going to go down, and Kenny’s empire literally does crash around him. I don’t want to spoil one of the better moments of the movie by revealing just how that occurs, but everyone in the audience knows it’s coming, even if they aren’t familiar with the actual story, simply because in one scene Kenny warns one of his salesman to put some of the money they are making aside. Naturally, neither the salesman nor Kenny heed that advice.


As a cautionary tale about Wall Street excess, Gold is a qualified success. While the rise and fall of Washoe Mining may seem very rapid, real life events took place almost that quickly, and, although there were no actual individual characters like the fictional South African mining executive, there was plenty of greed and culpability to go around, much as would occur a decade later in the housing market crash. Gold does show that rich people can be taken in as easily as the rather hapless Kenny and his even more hapless individual investors, but the various machinations along the way aren’t all that easy to follow. It’s clear that Kenny raises a lot of money and the stock price skyrockets in a short period of time, but it’s not all that clear just how it was all done. Films like The Big Short did a much better job of giving lay audiences a feel for how the market works, or, in both cases, doesn’t work.


Gold does a far better job as a character portrait of Kenny Wells. Comparisons with Ray Kroc, the centerpiece of The Founder, are inevitable, but there’s one key difference that makes itself apparent as Gold goes on. For all of Kroc’s machinations and business dealings, at the heart of McDonalds was the hamburger, and the movie spent a good bit of time showing hamburgers being made. Not once in Gold is there a shot of actual gold mining; indeed, as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that while Kenny’s father and grandfather were actual miners, he isn’t. He isn’t much of a businessman either. He’s just a true believer huckster, able to raise cash when the going is good but helpless when things fall apart. Fate smiles on him, through no real skill of his own, but he never realizes just how completely naïve and childlike he is. He’s a little boy in a big candy store, unaware that it’s all coming to an end.


The real problem with Gold, which is why I can’t really recommend it, is that neither the script nor director Stephen Gaghan are willing to treat Kenny as a simple fool. Instead, they try to make him a gold mining version of Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith. But Kenny, despite his talk of the American dream, is desperate for two things, success as a businessman and the goodies that come with it. There’s a certain degree of sadness here, to be sure, but the film tries—and fails—to make Kenny more of a hero than he is. To top it off, the very last moment in the movie is a complete copout (and a complete fabrication), designed to allow the audience to feel better about Kenny.


Gold is a decent movie, and, once the reason for Kenny’s downfall is shown, there’s a certain bizarre justice to the events. But the movie never really gets deep enough into the financial machinations that made the actual story compelling, and it never really gets a handle on the main character. Mathew McConaughey gives his all, especially in the otherwise silly scene shown below, in which the actor actually got up close to a tiger, but the movie itself is merely worthy of a bronze medal, not the Oscar gold the producers obviously sought.

In this scene, Matthew McConaughey gets up close and personal with a tiger to close a deal.

Read other reviews of Gold:


Gold (2016) on IMDb