A protruding beer-belly, snaggly teeth, bloodshot eyes staring out of a sweaty, unshaven face, and on top of it all a comb-over that’s downright pathetic — honey, Matthew McConaughey looks a fright in “Gold.” With other actors, this sort of body modification in the name of art is a high, holy duty. With McConaughey, it’s what he does for kicks.
That wild-card charisma keeps shining through, though, and you watch Kenny Wells, the roistering gold-prospecting anti-hero of “Gold,” with something between awe and alarm, just like the other characters in Stephen Gaghan’s scattershot drama. Wells runs a third-generation company, Washoe Mining, out of Reno — Craig T. Nelson is seen briefly as his gone-too-soon daddy — and he hasn’t had a strike in ages. The bank has already taken Kenny’s house and is about to take his girlfriend Kay’s (Bryce Dallas Howard, in a thankless role — this is a guy movie all the way).
There may not be precious metals to be found in North America, but there may be a mountain or two in Indonesia, where Kenny joins forces with geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), as cool and seductive as Wells is a chain-smoking wreck. “Gold” sounds like it’s heading into “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” territory but it’s really more of a “Wolf of Wall Street” business parable with mud between its toes.
There’s gold in them thar core samples, and Wells and Acosta appear to have struck the mother lode. At this point, the script by Patrick Massett and John Zinman starts Ping-Ponging among the dig in the jungle, Wells’s slaphappy crew of salesmen back in Reno, and a school of sharks in Manhattan, who begin to circle when Washoe’s stock takes off. Some fine actors get involved: Corey Stoll and Bill Camp, as Wall Street high rollers; a dapper Bruce Greenwood, as a rival mining CEO; Stacey Keach, as an old fraud of a banker. They all seem to understand that it’s a fool’s mission to go up against Matthew McConaughey when he has those bongos playing in his head.
Per the opening credits, “Gold” is “inspired by a true story,” which gives the filmmakers (and their lawyers) a lot more wiggle room than “based on a true story.” The real mining company was in Canada and called Bre-X; the scandal surrounding its Indonesian gold strike (and assorted skullduggery by members of the ruling Suharto clan, entertainingly sketched in the film) roiled the Canadian stock market in 1993. Ramirez’s character appears to be a fusion of two key players in the Bre-X affair, and McConaughey’s Kenny Wells is based on CEO David Walsh, who may or may not have been in on the various levels of chicanery that did or didn’t go on.
The movie’s an easy, engaging watch, even if it’s literally all over the map. Gaghan is best known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Traffic” (2000) and he wrote and directed the fiendishly smart “Syriana”(2005) — “Gold” is the first time he hasn’t scripted (or been credited with scripting) a movie he has directed. It shows: The dialogue is funny but awfully glib, and matters aren’t helped when characters point out the hokiness of the very lines they’re saying. In general, the movie needs a tighter hand on the reins. But maybe that’s impossible when you have a star so deeply invested in going buck wild.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Stephen Gaghan. Written by Patrick Massett and John Zinman. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 121 minutes. R (language throughout, some sexuality/nudity)
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.