"Gold," with Matthew McConaughey as a wild-eyed, hard-drinking prospector doggedly hunting the strike of a lifetime, is like the quintessential experience most treasure seekers have with a pan full of promising gravel: a lot of hopeful swirl, with little meaningful result.
In crafting a fictionalized account of the 1990s Bre-X mining scandal, with a Reno mining outfit subbing for the Canadian company that announced the discovery of a substantial gold deposit in Indonesia, director Stephen Gaghan and screenwriters Patrick Massett and John Zinman would seem to have all the greed, chicanery and performance mojo (McConaughey's default energy level is "Eureka!") needed to feel like they've hit the movie jackpot. They even shrewdly set it a decade earlier in the '80s, when Wall Street wolfishness was at its zenith.
It takes a lot of setup, however, for "Gold" to achieve a moderately thrilling hum of capitalist cat-and-mouse, so until then, it's a balding, huffing-and-puffing McConaughey straining to get us emotionally behind the outsized dreams of one more typically brash American entrepreneur. His Kenny Wells, first seen in a 1981 prologue, is a dashing evangelist for exploration, eager to take over the family mining company from his dad (Craig T. Nelson).
The seven-years-later Kenny is still optimistic, but is now a potbellied chain smoker desperate to keep his late father's debt-ridden mining company alive — even though he mostly operates it out of a local bar where his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) works — yet still convinced his high-risk attitude will eventually yield something. Even the way he holds his ever-present whiskey glass — at eye level — suggests someone always ready to toast.
Kenny's optimism leads him to put his faith in a whispered-about geologist named Mike Acosta, played by Edgar Ramírez with an unforced, soft-spoken confidence that's practically anti-McConaughey. With a hunch born of booze-soaked dreams and using his last savings, Kenny heads to Indonesia to convince the enigmatic Acosta that the geologist's theory about gold in the Borneo jungle is real. After a grueling, illness-ridden stretch of digging and panning and holding on to locals who aren't getting paid, some key core samples point to potentially the largest mother lode in history.
For Kenny, the accomplishment — making friends, staking a claim, proving one's worth by literally pulling it out of the ground — results in an organic, hard-won euphoria. But when money people and governments get involved, the pair encounter a minefield of temptations, from a wily investment banker (Corey Stoll) who sees in Kenny a rube, to a ruthless South African mining tycoon (Bruce Greenwood) with powerful connections.
Loyalty is threatened, pride is on the line, and when flash-forward snippets are inserted of Kenny being interviewed in a hotel room, one senses that things will not end well for this dreamer's big score.
Those are the fun, wiggly scenes, when the movie pits a fortune seeker against the Fortune 500s of the world, and McConaughey gets a few more shadings to play than gung-ho. The other beneficiary here is Howard, who finds heartbreaking nuance in the typically rote supportive-squeeze role.
The second half is certainly chewier than the first, but it's still hard to care much about the outcome when so much of "Gold" feels by-the-numbers. Gaghan's functional direction always seems just short of a perceived "American Hustle" meets "Glengarry Glen Ross" goal: peppy but never exhilarating about its office scenes, honest about the harshness of its jungle sequence but hardly evocative, and regarding McConaughey's natural showiness, less an ally than an enabler. And yet without its lead, whose full-throttle portrait is at least a burning flame, "Gold" wouldn't work on any level.
Running time: 2 hours
Rating: R, for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity
Playing: In general release