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Fool's Gold

It is time to recognize a long-standing class of often very satisfying films: the dopey Hollywood romantic comedies. For too long, dopeys have suffered from unfavorable comparison to screwball comedies, as if dopeys were failed screwballs. This is not the case. It is possible for a film to be both dopey and screwball (Romancing the Stone), but if this is unusual it is not because dopeys are stupid. Dopeys aren't stupid. They just exploit stupid ideas. This is very different from making stupid movies out of good ideas (e g, Dan in Real Life).

Connoisseurs of stupid ideas will differ. Is the stupid idea at the heart of Andy Tennant's Fool's Gold the notion that a captain of the doomed Spanish treasure fleet of 1715 deliberately ran his ship aground in the Bahamas and stowed its priceless cargo of gems (intended for the adornment of the new queen of Spain, Elizabeth Farnese) in an underwater cavern that could only be entered at the winter solstice? Or is it the possibility that a flake like Finn Finnegan (Matthew McConaughey) could salvage it, even with the help of his brainy ex-wife, Tess (Kate Hudson)? Enumerating the three ways in which her former husband is a genius, Tess ticks off: his ability to find treasure, his ability to find the money to pay for finding treasure, and a "third thing" that she declines to discuss. Fool's Gold would look a lot less dopey if it were only called The Third Thing.

I looked forward to seeing this film because Donald Petrie's How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days convinced me, after repeated viewings, that Ms Hudson and Mr McConaughey have a comic-chemistry thing going. This is largely Ms Hudson's doing. Mr McConaughey almost always plays a an affable hunk who knows everything that there is to know about whatever interests him, and almost nothing else. Someday, perhaps, before the actor is too old, someone will have the sense to make a superhero spoof called UltraGuy, and Mr McConaughey will walk off with an Oscar and perhaps even a seat in the Senate. Of all the lovely actresses who have thrown themselves at his dependable attractions, however, none has been so unabashed about liking what she sees as Kate Hudson, and her enthusiasm is mightily infectious. 

On top of that, she Knows Better. Like the Gershwin girl who's in search of a primitive man, she ruefully admits that she doesn't want a man who belongs to a club, but a man who has a club that belongs to him. But although she is brainy enough to put it that way, Ms Hudson's heroine remembers whom she's dealing with, and instead of letting fly the clever repartee, she chooses not to say anything. Instead, she telegraphs her vinegary assessments to the audience with a broad array of facial expressions. She squints, purses her mouth, wiggles her nose, doesn't frown it's all good. It must be noted that Mr McConaughey's characters, while a little bit dim and more than a little bit idiotic, are never oafish. There is nothing masochistic about wanting plenty of that third thing, even if it does entail a familiarity with financial hardship. I'm not saying Hepburn and Tracy. But this duo is certainly hotter than Day and the other Hudson.

Fool's Gold opens with a masterstroke of dopey cinema. While Finn and his Ukrainian sidekick, Alfonz (Ewen Bremner), are hoovering the bed of a lagoon for treasure, Finn's sloppy housekeeping catches up with him. His unattended boat catches fire, explodes, whatnot, and sinks, right beside him. It's wonderful film: the two clueless goofs don't even see the ship slipping down, but only turn when they hear it thud on the sea floor and they can't see anything then, either, because of the sand that the new wreck kicks up. Needless to say, Finn is in hock to some serious or would-be serious bad guys (Kevin Hart, as a sporting rapper, and his sidekicks, played by Malcolm Jamal-Warner and Brian Hooks), and they're very unhappy about the loss of their investment. Finn is liquidated or at any rate he's tossed into the ocean wearing an anchor bracelet only to make a daring escape and live to be rescued by some fun dudes in a cigarette boat.

When one of the dudes toasts Neptune with his beer, you realize that what sets the intelligent dopey comedy apart is the authenticity of its idiosyncratic details. There's a dude who has actually heard of Neptune? I'm impressed. Finn finds a second deus ex machina a more intelligent gent, perhaps, but just as dopey a deus in British zillionaire Nigel Honeycutt (Donald Sutherland), who is sailing the Caribbean in his very sleek yacht. Guess who his first steward is! Guess who thanks him for putting in at Key West so that she can finalize her divorce! Guess whose ex catches the windblown hat of his bimbo daughter, Gemma (Alexis Dziena)! The plotting is so superbly dopey that to criticize it is dopey.

Mr Sutherland has a deathless moment, one on which he brings to bear an entire career of understatement. When Gemma peals that her father named his boat Precious Gem after her unconsciously, Nigel replies that, no, he gave a lot of thought to it. No, Daddy, insists Gemma. Nigel gives up. "And then I did it unconsciously." His Nigel also employs a gay couple as chefs. Gary (Alex LeFevre) and Eddie (Michael Mulheren) carry the lovable Irish cop trope one step further and demonstrate that you can be a refrigerator-sized gay man of a certain age and still be loaded to your fingertips with Outer-Borough common sense.

In a dopey comedy, what might be criminal, even lethal conduct can be joyously entertaining. When Finn whispers the bad news about the boat ("her" boat, according to the divorce decree) in Tess's ear, she calmly borrows a walking stick from an adjacent geezer and takes a swing at Mr Hopeless, sending him flying into the shrubbery. It's a very satisfying moment. We've all wanted to do that. That's what dopey comedy is for.

I ought to know something about "dopey," myself. Before I could write a word about Fool's Gold, I had to do a bit of Internet detective work into the shipwreck of the Spanish treasure fleet in 1715. I couldn't serve up an ill-researched report, could I? Before I knew it, over an hour had gone by and I'd learned exactly nothing. No hands were lost, I'm happy to say. (February 2008)

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