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By T. T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc in ‘The Founder’

The last two  weeks have given audiences prime examples of how the awards season can take films and actors, chew them up, and quite ungraciously spit them out—even the best of the best. Discerning fans can tell right away when the studio and talent behind a particular film believe they might have an Oscar chaser on their hands. The feeling starts with the pitch, the kind that gets sent out to the A-listers and then might make its way to the hot celebrated performers, either the rising stars, or those enjoying a first or second comeback and the adoration of peers and critics. The project gets rushed into production, steamrolled through editing, and then runs smack dab into the early wall of festival darlings anointed from Sundance or Cannes, or the later roadblocks from Telluride, Toronto, and New York. Sadly, there’s a real cautionary tale to be observed in the cases of “The Founder” and “Gold.”

The last time we saw Michael Keaton, he was basking in the spotlight shining on the terrifically talented ensemble of writer-director Tom McCarthy’s Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight” (Best Picture and Best Writing, Original Screenplay). Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams snagged supporting nominations, but everyone recognized that the film was packed with powerful performances across the board, and Keaton, it could be argued, helped lead the way. And why not? The guy was coming off his first and only Oscar nomination, as Best Actor in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” which captured gold for cinematography, original screenplay, directing, and film. Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone all earned acting nominations, and while the technical aspects of the production left audiences dizzy, again Keaton’s manic energy gave life and meaning to Iñárritu’s virtuosity.

So it makes sense that John Lee Hancock would come knocking on Keaton’s door with his take on how a grinding salesman named Ray Kroc would seize upon a way to transform the burgeoning fast food innovations of a couple of brothers named McDonald into a global empire. Kroc needed to combine ruthless business savvy with enough aw-shucks likeability to be able to worm his way behind the scenes in the first place.

The genius of Keaton, truth be told, is his wolfish grin, which seems to have feathers and flesh already caught between the teeth before he’s even taken his first bite into you. The thing is, he’s already sized up his prey with his quicksilver stare before his lip has curled. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as Dick and Mac McDonald never stood a chance, and it could be argued that, despite Keaton’s cunning performance, neither did the movie. It was too on-the-nose (in light of our current political environment), and ultimately too much of a one-man tour-de-force, but what a show.

On the other end of the spectrum stands Matthew McConaughey, the pretty boy made good after claiming top acting honors for “Dallas Buyers Club” back in 2013. Every critic worth his salt gave his spin of McConaughey’s narrative transformation, beginning with his gritty turn in “The Lincoln Lawyer” and his possibly over-praised work in “Magic Mike,” which then allowed him to continue on after the Oscar with noteworthy roles in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and even the first miraculous season of the HBO series “True Detective.” McConaughey could do no wrong, am I right?

Except for the fact that his latest release, “Gold” from director Stephen Gaghan (better known as the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “Traffic”) finds McConaughey falling prey to the trappings of actor’s tics and tricks—the worst of the bunch being the decision to pack on the pounds as a means of getting inside a character. His guy Kenny Wells is based on a real life modern prospector who, at the time the story takes place, is down on his luck, desperate enough to score a big gold hit that he’s willing to traipse off to the jungles of Indonesia on a hunch.

Wells is a greasy mess of a character, which is obviously what attracted McConaughey’s attention. You can see the lure of such a role for an actor with a chip on his shoulder, because he’s been celebrated to the point of derision for his good looks. Ugly up and win over the naysayers.

But “Gold” proves that you need more than a thinning hairline and a bulging waistline to sway not only the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, but also ticket buyers, during a phase when there’s a wonderful plethora of prime choices vying for their box office dollars.