Friday, January 27, 2017

Gold: 18 karat at best

Gold (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for sexuality, nudity and considerable profanity

By Derrick Bang

This story has more ups and downs than a merry-go-round ... and, like such amusement park attractions, any semblance of an actual destination is mere illusion.

On the triumphant day that his company is admitted to the New York Stock Exchange,
Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey, fist raised) jubilantly kicks off the morning trading,
accompanied by girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) and partner Mike Acosta (Edgar
Ramírez, far left).
Gold is inspired, and quite accurately, by the 1997 Bre-X Minerals Ltd. mining and stock fraud, which — in the wake of the company’s collapse — became (and remains) one of Canada’s largest and most embarrassing stock frauds, and history’s largest-ever mining scandal.

And all because “gold fever” blinded far too many people to the most obvious set of checks and balances.

Scripters Patrick Massett and John Zinman have changed names and moved the primary players from Canada to the States. Even so, they follow events closely enough to raise eyebrows over their failure to acknowledge two published accounts of the catastrophe — The Bre-X Fraud and Fool’s Gold: The Making of a Global Market Fraud — that must have served as primary sources.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Kenny Wells, the third-generation face of Washoe Mining, a family business based in Reno, Nev. A prospector at heart, Kenny believes strongly in lineage, and loves to wax eloquent about the grandfather who founded the company with hard work and dirt under his fingers. But the story inevitably sounds rehearsed and greased with a layer of snake oil, particularly when he’s trying to charm investors.

Kenny also supplies occasional off-camera narration to us viewers, to bridge time-shifts and plot gaps, but McConaughey’s voice has the distinct aroma of self-justification. It’s clear, pretty quickly, that Kenny probably isn’t a reliable narrator; he may relate details accurately, but his complicity is open to serious question.

We meet him during a comfortable period, as primary hustler for the company that his father still runs. Daytime work is dominated by telephone pitches and the careful scrutiny of geological surveys; hard-drinking evenings take place in the tavern where Kenny’s longtime girlfriend, Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard), works as a waitress.

They’re an unlikely but comfortably matched couple. She loves him unconditionally, having made peace with his almost religious pursuit of dreams. He, in turn, relies on her stability and support; she grounds him. Decked out in 1980s-style big hair, and poured into the tight outfits with which waitresses have long enhanced their tips, Howard is the pluperfect working gal who adores her man.

The glow in her eyes is palpable, whenever Kenny is around: We hope that he’ll never abuse her loyalty.

Flash-forward several years, to the malaise of economic downturn. Kenny and his few remaining employees, reduced to making their cold calls from the aforementioned bar, are hanging on by a thread. He has lost his business and home, and by sponging off Kay also threatens her stability.

At the end of his rope, Kenny makes a Hail-Mary play: He flies to Indonesia, and an arranged meeting with enigmatic geologist Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramírez). Although coasting on his fame for having made a massively profitable copper strike some years back, Acosta has had less luck wooing potential partners to his belief that a similarly huge gold mine is waiting to be found, deep in the Indonesian jungle.

Kenny believes, if only because he has no other choice.

Acosta has the ground-level experience, and sufficient knowledge of the local workforce, to assemble a drilling team. Kenny is tasked with bankrolling the operation, and now — armed with an actual site, goal (gold) and plan — has enough ammunition to gain traction with the investors who’ve ignored him for the past few years.

What happens next is astonishing on all sorts of levels, at which point director Stephen Gagham’s film becomes an economic cautionary tale, akin to The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street. Clearly, something about greed is hard-wired into our feral brains, and it transforms us, Mr. Hyde-ish, into grasping, gullible fools.

But that’s not all. A subsequent plot twist is even more unexpected (if less faithful to the actual Bre-X scandal, but hey: That’s what separates dramas from documentaries).

Much has been made of McConaughey’s method-acting willingness to gain 40 pounds for this role, but the striking transformation isn’t merely a function of the unpalatable paunch, or the expanding bald spot poorly camouflaged by an embarrassing comb-over. McConaughey looks, sounds and — in particular — moves like a silver-tongued charlatan. Initial circumstances shade Kenny as a woebegone underdog worthy of this improbable shot, but winning — and keeping — our sympathy isn’t that easy.

In a word, Kenny is a boor: He’s slovenly, uncouth, profane, single-minded to the point of being rude, and a borderline alcoholic. More often than not, he’s his own worst enemy, because he’s also not nearly as smart as he believes. Over time, McConaughey makes him repulsive in the ooky, shuddery way we react around snakes, spiders or slugs. It’s quite a performance, particularly since — all these shortcomings notwithstanding — we still feel for the guy. A bit. Maybe.

Possibly because — and this is clever, on Gagham’s part — we frequently see him through Kay’s eyes. She recognizes and forgives Kenny’s shortcomings, while also grieving over the fact that, his cockiness aside, he’s an easy mark for the far more sophisticated sharks who begin to circle Washoe Mining.

Ramírez’s Acosta is the polar opposite: quiet, capable, immaculately dressed, and appropriately wary ... particularly when confronted with Kenny’s initial overture. Where Kenny always seems desperate, Acosta is more pragmatic: no less hopeful, but with a much better handle on the image he projects.

Kenny couldn’t care less what people think of him: an arrogance displayed most hilariously during his initial meeting with Mark Hancock (Bruce Greenwood, subtly condescending), the world’s richest mining mogul, who — inevitably — expresses interest in a partnership.

Earlier on, Washoe’s efforts first come to the attention of good ol’ boy Clive Coleman (Stacy Keach), who runs a Reno capital group, and knew Kenny’s father. Next step up the ladder is a Wall Street investment firm dominated by insufferably patronizing go-getter Bryan Woolf (Corey Stoll). Both actors are wholly persuasive.

Indeed, the overall casting is excellent, down to the three loyal Washoe employees who cling to Kenny’s fading hopes (played by Macon Blair, Adam LeFevre and Frank Wood). And, as already mentioned, the storyline is equal parts fascinating, horrifying and tragic.

Why, then, doesn’t the film resonate more successfully?

Gaghan is right at home with the unhealthy relationships that can bind individuals, corporate heads and government entities, amid ethically questionable behavior. He won an Academy Award for his superbly complex screenplay adaptation of 2001’s Traffic, and both scripted and directed 2005’s equally absorbing Syriana. The distinction, perhaps, is that both earlier films had identifiable “good guys” who earned our admiration: characters who deserved to succeed.

That’s not as obvious here, if in fact any of the players in Gold are worthy of triumph. (Howard’s steadfast and sympathetic Kay may be the only exception.) But Massett and Zinman’s storytelling style also is a problem; the blend of lengthy dramatic sequences and occasional off-camera narration is clumsy, the latter sometimes intrusive.

Massett and Zinman also insert a final scene — definitely a leap from Bre-X reality — that they likely intended to be ironic, amusing or perhaps even cathartic ... but they misjudged. Badly. This denouement is aggravating for several reasons, the most glaring being the ambiguity with which we’re suddenly confronted.

It happens sometimes: Gold emerges as less than the sum of its individually impressive parts. The film is cold and lacks heart. Gaghan and his writers focus overmuch on the moral — that deplorable human nature must be curbed — while paying insufficient attention to tone, and the characters presenting the lesson.

Even so, it’s one helluva story that’s bound to revive interest in the actual Bre-X catastrophe.

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