Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fool's Gold: 18-karat fun

Fool's Gold (2008) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, profanity and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.14.08

Giddy lunacy isn't as easy to pull off as you might think; the slightest mistake, and the whole thing collapses into dull, dumb, mind-numbing tedium.
Eager to start a day of treasure-hunting, our heroes — from left, Tess (Kate
Hudson), Finn (Matthew McConaughey), Nigel (Donald Sutherland), Gemma
(Alexis Dziena) and Alfonz (Ewan Bremmer) — are dismayed to discover
that another boat and crew have beaten them to the punch.

Hollywood produced an impressive number of successful screwball comedies in the late 1930s and early '40s, and scores of writers and directors have frustrated themselves — and annoyed audiences — trying to reproduce the formula.

Director Andy Tennant, working from a script he wrote with John Claflin and Daniel Zelman, gets the mix just about right in Fool's Gold. The result is a rip-roarin' ocean adventure: relentlessly silly at times, but good-natured enough that you're unlikely to care. The project also has been molded to Matthew McConaughey's easygoing manly charm, and he's surrounded by an ensemble cast of engaging characters, all well played.

Additionally, the film re-unites McConaughey with Kate Hudson, his co-star from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. McConaughey and Hudson work reasonably well together: Their flirty banter is lively and delivered with well-timed precision, and the carnal chemistry positively smolders.

It's hard not to be impressed by McConaughey's savvy; his romantic comedies may be insubstantial trifles, but they're also quite popular. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days made more than $100 million, and the more recent Failure to Launch came close to the same threshold.

In each case, McConaughey allows himself to be cast as a slacker (to varying degrees) in what seems, at first blush, to be the secondary role behind a stronger female lead ... but in truth he easily commands the screen, and the story, in each case.

His role in Fool's Gold is no different: Ben "Finn" Finnegan, a single-minded beach-bum treasure hunter quite happily living an adolescent fantasy. Carelessness, slovenly behavior and a tendency to lie his way to a desired goal have cost him everything; he has no money, no material possessions and — as this film begins — no wife. Tess (Hudson), finally fed up with the guy, has just divorced him.

Finn can't understand it. He recognizes and acknowledges his many faults; in his mind, that should be good enough. And when such protests are delivered with that fetching sparkle in McConaughey's eyes, he's hard to resist. Even Tess agrees: She still loves the guy, but can't live with him.

Trouble is, she also can't live without him ... and this sort of fractured marital dynamic is at the heart of every successful screwball comedy going back to classics such as 1937's The Awful Truth.

But Tess has had enough. She has wasted years at Finn's side, investigating the long-undiscovered "queen's dowry": 40 chests of priceless treasure lost at sea, somewhere in the Caribbean, in 1715. In an effort to re-build her life, Tess has taken a job aboard the mega-yacht owned by gazillionaire Nigel Honeycutt (Donald Sutherland, whose smooth line delivery is to die for).

Unfortunately, the newly destitute Finn sees this very same yacht as his ticket back to an ocean exploration. After ingratiating himself with Nigel's dim-bulb celebutante daughter, Gemma (Alexis Dziena, quite funny), Finn winds up aboard ... much to Tess' dismay.

To further muddy the waters, Finn has left a scorched-earth collection of enemies in his wake. The most dangerous of these is gangster-turned-rapper Bigg Bunny (Kevin Hart).

Finn's former mentor, Moe Fitch (Ray Winstone), also gets into the act. (As Tess well knows, talking too much is another of Finn's failings.) Once upon a time, Moe and Finn were best buds; these days, Moe would just as soon drown our hero. And collect the treasure himself.

By way of compensation, Finn can turn to his own right-hand man, a Ukranian transplant named Alfonz (Ewen Bremner, one of the better elements in Death at a Funeral). Unfortunately, Alfonz is a little too concerned about his own skin to be all that useful.

All of which leaves poor Finn in a position to get smacked, slugged, punched, shot at and heaved off the side of a boat ... with an anchor chained to his ankles. To say nothing of the peril he voluntarily puts himself in, whether leaping from an airborne Jet-Ski or riding a motorcycle over a cliff. But just like the Energizer Bunny, Finn bobs up for more, sporting little more than a few scratches and bruises.

Like I said: totally silly.

The action scenes are fast, furious and well paced; some are played for laughs, while others are unexpectedly perilous. Most of the mayhem is directed at Finn, but Tess eventually winds up in plenty of danger herself; refreshingly, she's no push-over.

All this physical stuff is balanced by an equal number of verbal interludes, and that's why Fool's Gold is so entertaining: Tennant has the recipe down. Finn and Tess snipe at each other constantly, but never with much venom; other running gags include Tess' attempt to coach Gemma into being something other than a bimbo, and the mildly fussy conversations between the two gay cooks (a couple, and proud of it) on Nigel's yacht.

Then, too, the script occasionally lobs a poignant emotional bomb, most involving Nigel's efforts to bond with his spoiled and slutty daughter.

Cinematographer Don Burgess gets plenty of play from the luxurious ocean and island settings, although locations off Queensland, Australia, stand in for the Caribbean. No matter: It's all gorgeous.

George Fenton contributes a lively score that's just as droll as the story it complements.

Although clearly played mostly for laughs, Fool's Gold is a much more successful action saga than McConaughey's franchise bid in the failed 2004 adaptation of Clive Cussler's Sahara (one of the actor's few colossal flops).

Credit McConaughey, more at ease with a lighter, looser character; and Tennant, shrewd enough to build a film around his cast's strengths.

The result is a frivolous good time at the movies, and a blessed relief during Hollywood's annual winter doldrums.

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