"Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” said Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year (quoting the last words of another thespian). And there’s nothing like a failed comedy to remind us just how hard. Whether the writer’s going for refined satire, frat-boy belly laughs or a frothy romantic soufflé, the sound of setups falling flat is always the same.
That sound is heard often in Fool’s Gold, which aspires to the sexy silliness of classic screwball comedies. In its opening scene, set aboard the boat of laid-back treasure hunter Finn (Matthew McConaughey), a sheet of paper catches fire and wafts lazily around the cabin, as if borne aloft by the happy-go-lucky calypso tune on the soundtrack. The whole movie, directed by Andy Tennant (Ever After, Hitch) and scripted by John Claflin and Daniel Zelman, aspires to that kind of lightness. But when the flaming scrap touches down, causing the boat’s swift destruction while McConaughey and his sidekick scuba dive obliviously nearby, the movie falls to Earth, too. What should have been a clever sight gag becomes an endless sequence in which an oaf fails to see the obvious. Meanwhile, George Fenton’s original music prances around, as it does throughout the film, adding aural curlicues in an effort to make the audience hear the funny.
The movie’s appeal hinges on McConaughey’s chemistry with Kate Hudson, who plays his mismatched wife, Tess, a control-freak historian who’s the brains of their Caribbean treasure-hunting outfit. Early in the movie, she divorces him for being chronically broke and feckless: “You married a man for the sex and then expected him to be smart,” her lawyer groans. Sad to say, that line is wittier than most of the sparring that goes on between the leads once — inevitably — they meet again.
Meanwhile, the writers assemble an adventure-comedy plot that reads as if it’s been sitting on a studio shelf since 1987 — when Hudson’s mom, Goldie Hawn, could have starred. Seeking a shipload of Spanish royal jewels lost in 1715, Finn and Tess enlist the princely yacht and manpower of English poo-bah Donald Sutherland. But a rap mogul-slash-rum-manufacturer named Bigg Bunny (Kevin Hart) wants the bling, too, and he has plenty of disposable henchmen to send after the lovers. Antics ensue.
Weirdly enough, the writers avoid a well-worn avenue to success in this genre. Almost every comedy about estranged sweethearts involves jealousy, as the lovers deliberately flirt with others to inflame each other. There’s a potential rival for Hudson on the yacht — Alexis Dziena, playing Sutherland’s spoiled daughter. But McConaughey treats her like a kid sister, and her story trails off into a half-hearted subplot about how a Paris Hilton-like narcissistic void can redeem herself.
That’s too bad, because Dziena — who has the modern socialite’s bleached smile and creepy, lollipop-headed physique — manages to be more amusing than Hudson. While the latter telegraphs her emotions in cutesy facial moues, her leading man floats through his part as if he’s scanning the horizon for the nearest swim-up bar. In the role of a charming, frequently shirtless party boy — not a stretch, if Us magazine is to be believed — McConaughey looks so bored that it’s hard to recall the actual acting he did in films such as Frailty.
Admittedly, with material like this, you can’t entirely blame him. When Hudson and McConaughey deliver the long, long backstory of the lost treasure, their narrative is “complex, but not in a good way” — as Tess says of their relationship.
In its last third, Fool’s Gold delivers some of the splashy, fun slapstick we all remember from those Indiana Jones ripoffs that used to play all weekend on basic cable. When it’s snowing outside, it’s certainly nice to see a big screen filled with the sparkling Caribbean. But as for real madcap comedy — which is simple in a good way — you won’t find it here.