It’s too bad Matthew McConaughey already made a movie called “Fool’s Gold,” since the title would’ve been perfect for his latest, a bucking-bronco paydirt saga in which he plays a white-trash desperado with a claim to more of the precious metal than he knows what to do with. Directed with an odd mix of human compassion and giddy abandon by Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”), “Gold” is a lively portrayal of what’s often misidentified as the American Dream, but might be more accurately described as the American Fantasy — where men dream of wealth and success without having to put in the work.

Proudly sporting a pot belly, snaggled teeth, and receding combover (though any normal person with either would go out of his way to hide them), McConaughey turns in a gonzo performance as a gold prospector named Kenny Wells, who improbably strikes it rich after acting on a hunch that takes him deep in the jungles of Indonesia, only to lose track of the claim as smarter men than he try to get in on the deal. Like “American Hustle” or “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Gold” plays fast and loose with its factual origins, allowing McConaughey to become a one-man acting tornado. And yet, though Gaghan has less directing experience than either David O. Russell or Martin Scorsese, he never lets the movie spiral out of his grasp (although the final scene is a huge miscalculation, featuring an unearned reunion and a twist that should, but doesn’t, make us question everything that’s come before).

“Gold” is one of those movies that could have gone either way, and some will surely label it a disaster over the tonal risks it takes, tightrope-walking as it does between sincerity and satire. But for those willing to take the characters at face value, it’s a deliriously entertaining ride, as a man with a dream drops his last quarter in the slot machine and goes home with the entire casino.

After inheriting his father’s mining company, Wells realizes he has neither the patience nor the gift for this particular line of work. What he does have is the good sense to realize his limitations, and so Wells turns to a more experienced geologist, Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramírez), to help him locate a spot that feeds into a river known for its irregular supply of gold — a point reinforced by the natives, who can be seen sifting as Wells and Acosta make their way upstream. Wells may seem crazy, but Acosta brings a certain confidence to the endeavor. From his heroic introductory shot, in which a drone-mounted camera floats upward to find him standing godlike over a mine, Acosta gets the sort of flattering treatment most stars only wish they could get. But favoring him subliminally works to make Wells seem relatively unreliable.

There’s something off about the way Wells is negotiating this deal, and even though the underwear-clad dreamer nearly dies of malaria right there at the exploration site, everything seems to come a little too easy. Punch-drunk on the prospect of having discovered the richest gold deposit of the century, Wells heads back to America, where everyone treats him differently — except for his girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard), who can’t resist upgrading her wardrobe (costume designer Danny Glicker goes wild letting Kay’s nouveau riche tastes run wild) but otherwise sees Wells as she always has. Howard serves as the story’s soul, and it’s heartbreaking to watch her trying to protect him from the vultures who’ve materialized now that he’s rich.

If this story were as simple as a guy hitting the jackpot and everything in his life suddenly gong swell, it would hardly be worth telling. But Wells’ good fortune brings considerable complications, and before long, he’s beset by Wall Street sharks. One minute he’s ringing the Stock Exchange’s opening bell, and the next, he’s so desperate to save his company that he’s staring an Indonesian tiger in the face — this is just the kind of movie that would’ve been perfect for Tony Scott. It’s tamer in Gaghan’s hands, but only slightly, as the director relies on DP Robert Elswit (a career-long collaborator of Paul Thomas Anderson) to keep the camera constantly moving as Wells’ situation advances, feeding into the delirious momentum of success.

During the jungle scenes, it’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” meets “The African Queen,” with McConaughey’s flop-sweat clown standing in for the hard-boiled Bogey. The rest recalls movies such as “Boiler Room” and “The Sting,” where we can never be quite sure who’s getting played, or what the angle even is, other than that none of this can be taken at face value. Perhaps the biggest clue comes from an incredulous young man (Toby Kebbell) with plenty of tough questions for Wells. At first, this interview (or is it an interrogation?) may seem like a handy device for dispensing otherwise-complicated exposition — until the plot catches up with these scenes, revealing just how deep Wells’ troubles run.

By this point in Patrick Massett and John Zinman’s script, reality has long since been left in the dust. Gaghan understandably wants to tell the best story, but he doesn’t seem to have any answers — or else coyly thinks that ambiguity ought to be more entertaining. Which begs the question: What have we been watching? Considering how much creative license all involved have taken along the way, is the movie supposed to be a version of “what really happened”? Or is this merely Wells’ possibly self-serving version of events? Did any of this actually take place, or is McConaughey merely looking to score more gold to sit alongside his Oscar for “Dallas Buyers Club”? It works because the actor has made it personal, tapping into the life-or-death stakes he watched his daddy follow as an oil-pipe salesman. He’s taken Willy Loman and reinvented him as a loud, brash buffoon, trading hard work for dumb luck, and though Gaghan’s ending can’t decide whether “Gold” is a tragedy or not, Kenny Wells is a character we won’t soon forget.

Film Review: ‘Gold’

Reviewed at Los Angeles Film School, Nov. 10, 2016. Running time:

  • Production: A TWC-Dimension release of a Black Bear Pictures, Hwy61 production. Producers: Teddy Schwarzman, Michael Nozik, Patrick Massett, John Zinman, Matthew McConaughey. Executive producers: Paul Haggis, Richard Middleton, Ben Stillman. Co-producers: Michael Heimler, Chris Lowenstein.
  • Crew: Director: Stephen Gaghan. Screenplay: Patrick Massett & John Zinman. Camera (color, widescreen): Robert Elswit. Editors: Douglas Crise, Rick Grayson.
  • With: Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Joshua Harto, Timothy Simons, Michael Landes, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, Bill Camp, Rachel Taylor, Macon Blair, Bhavesh Patel.