Two for the Money

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Is there any actor in Hollywood who’s better at playing the corrupt mentor to the naive protégé than Al Pacino? His filmography is littered with immoral and apoplectic Svengalis: Scent of a Woman, City Hall, Donnie Brasco, The Devil’s Advocate and The Recruit. One can only wonder what draws the actor to these roles time and again. Could it be some sort of alpha male dry hump? Territorial pissing? Is Pacino trying to sexually intimidate, even emasculate, his younger male co-stars? Chris O’Donnell, John Cusak, Johnny Depp, Keanu Reeves, Colin Farrell and now, Matthew McConaughey have all been mauled by his rampant scenery-chewing. One thing is certain: the 65-year-old actor’s manic bluster and machine-gun charisma never fails to fascinate.

In Two for the Money, McConaughey plays Brandon Lang, whose promising football career is cut short in college by injury, reducing him to providing inside tips to low-rent gamblers via a 1-900 line. A true lover of football, his uncanny ability to predict winners attracts the notice of Walter Abrams (Pacino), the operator of a big-league betting consultation service in New York City. Abrams sets out to seduce Brandon, offering a Faustian bargain wherein he’ll become a slick, high profile point-picking guru. As expected, Brandon is corrupted by fame and fortune, struggles with daddy issues and ends up falling from grace.

If you think it sounds a bit like The Devil’s Advocate without the horror film trappings, you’re not too far from the target. Unlike that film, however, Two for the Money has few surprising or outrageous moments.

Director D.J. Caruso can’t seem to make up his mind as to what kind of story he wants to tell. Is this a morality tale about the corrupting influences of success, an insider’s look at the billion-dollar world of sports betting or a touchy-feely tale of inadequate fathers and lost sons? As it turns out, it’s a little of each and, as a result, a whole lot of nothing. Despite Pacino’s Herculean efforts to add some blustery panache, the film’s stakes are too low and the drama too simple-minded.

Still, there’s a guilty pleasure in watching Pacino swagger and bully his way through the film. He delivers such lines as, “If you want something from me, you’re gonna have to rip it out of my talons,” with such malevolent glee that you can’t help but be entertained. In a deliciously wicked incident, Abrams — a recovering addict-turned-gaming adviser — attends a Gamblers’ Anonymous meeting, brilliantly articulates the pathology of the addicted, then solicits its members for their business. One suspects Pacino may have even taken the role for this scene alone.

McConaughey’s ripped abs, on the other hand, make more of an impression than his performance. The actor has a laid-back all-American charisma that never rises above the ordinary. When aw-shucks Brandon metamorphoses into a fast-talking swindler, there is an opportunity for the young actor to challenge Pacino’s smarmy charm. Unfortunately, McConaughey’s idea of transformation ends with a nice suit and Pat Riley haircut. Rene Russo does her best as Abrams’ tough-as-nails wife, an underwritten part that’s barely relevant to the story.

The world of illegal sports gambling, despite its economic implications, has mostly gone unexamined by Hollywood. Such an unfamiliar and unique milieu should provide ripe and exotic fruit, but instead, Two for the Money only offers recycled ideas and sluggish clichés. Sad to say, even the climactic football game, where so many of the characters’ fates will be determined, fails to spark excitement or drama.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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