Two for the Money (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Two for the Money starts as a high voltage drama about the underbelly of the sports business - the multi-billion dollar gambling industry. The movie takes us into the warts-and-all world of 1-900 numbers and internet betting sites, bringing us on-board and suck(er)ing us along with the main character. For 60 minutes, Two for the Money is a great ride - compelling, informative, and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, around the half-way point, the melodrama kicks in, and the film's focus becomes increasingly murky. Original screenwriting gives way to clichés, and the resolution, while offering closure, seems false - too much a case of the filmmakers wanting to have their cake and eat it, too.

The role of gambling honcho Walter Abrams is tailor-made for Al Pacino. It's great fun watching Pacino tear into this role, knowingly and calculatingly overacting. By delivering all the expected rants and mini-explosions, Pacino creates in Walter a character who is not only larger-than-life, but intense and charismatic. Pacino understands what the part demands, and delivers it with gusto. This is not great acting in the conventional sense, but when Pacino is on screen, it's impossible to ignore him, and he is one of the few saving graces of the woeful final hour. When everything is crashing and burning around him, Pacino turns up the heat.

Throughout his career, Matthew McConaughey has taken vicious jabs for his pretty-boy looks and lightweight acting choices. The looks are still in evidence here (in fact, since the actor has opportunities to show off his buff body, one could argue they are more obvious here than at any time in the past), but there's talent to go along with it. This may not be McConaughey's best career role, but it's up there. Aside from Pacino and McConaughey, the acting leaves few impressions. Rene Russo is underused, and that term doesn't begin to describe the lack of screen time accorded to Armand Assante, Jeremy Piven, and Jaime King. (All three appear to represent interesting subplots that were whittled down to almost nothing at some point in either the development or post-production process.)

The story opens with a brief prologue showing how promising young quarterback Brandon Lang (McConaughey) suffers a career-ending injury before he has a chance at a career. Years later, post-college, Brandon is working for minimum wage by running a gambling tip service for a 1-900 operation. The accuracy of his picks captures the attention of Walter Abrams (Pacino), a New York City businessman who runs a much larger organization. He offers Brandon a big salary increase and a palatial apartment if he will re-locate and work for him. Soon, Brandon has become the hottest commodity in the Big Apple, with a correct prediction rate exceeding 80%. Everyone is enthralled with "John Anthony" (the name he has adopted), except for a jealous co-worker (Jeremy Piven) and Walter's wife, Toni (Rene Russo), who fears Brandon will re-awaken Walter's secret demons and put too much stress on his weak heart. But when Brandon's luck falters and his ability to make predictions hits a wall, his life begins to unravel.

Some of the early portions of Two for the Money reminded me of the first act of Martin Scorsese's Casino. Both films offer frank, inside views into aspects of gambling that most ordinary citizens are not privy to. The characters and tone recall those from 2000's The Boiler Room. To Walter, anyone calling his betting service is already hooked. It's just a matter of how much money they can be talked into betting. (Walter's business gets a 10% commission on all winnings made using a pick from his prognosticators.) Brandon becomes the rarest of the rare - John Anthony can not only predict, but he can close sales as well. He's a rising star and, as Walter's protégé, the heir apparent to the business. He eats, drinks, and sleeps football, until Walter miscalculates and the roof caves in.

The second half of the film concentrates on the Brandon's fall from grace, and it's less interesting than his rise to power. We're left with untied loose ends (like the lack of closure associated with Armand Assante's mobster character), and most of the resolutions are clichéd. Having gotten Brandon to the top, it's as if director D.J. Caruso and screenwriter Dan Gilroy know they want him to take a fall, but can't figure out how to make the downward spiral as arresting as the upward trajectory. It's an unfortunate thing for a movie to show so much promise in its first half, then disappoint to this degree as it comes down the home stretch.

For Caruso, this is his second consecutive outing to suffer from the same fatal flaw. His previous directorial effort, Taking Lives, was an engaging thriller until it took a preposterous third-act turn. Two for the Money, despite being more of a drama than a thriller (although it occasionally has the rhythms of the latter), starts out as strongly and finishes as weakly. One hopes this is not a trend. Two for the Money is marginally worth seeing if you're a Pacino fan but, even then, waiting for the DVD is the smart bet.

Two for the Money (United States, 2005)

Director: D.J. Caruso
Cast: Al Pacino, Matthew McConaughey, Rene Russo, Armand Assante, Jeremy Piven, Jaime King
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy
Cinematography: Conrad W. Hall
Music: Christophe Beck
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2005-10-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1