Two for the Money

Two for the Money may be my leading candidate for the year's most mis-marketed film. The movie, which is advertised as a man’s rise and fall in the world of illegal sports gambling, actually manages to tell a story much deeper than that, giving Academy Award winner Al Pacino more scenes to brilliantly chew on then he’s had since Scent of a Woman.

At face value the movie does involve what it’s advertised as being. Brandon Long (Matthew McConaughey) has had your typical failed sports-hero life. He got into sports to win his dad’s attention and it became his life, despite his father abandoning him at age 10. Brandon was a superstar football player until a key game in college where he was injured badly. No longer a candidate for professional football, although that doesn’t keep him from trying, Brandon is a small time 900-number voice actor. When we first see him he’s actually doing the voice for a teeny bopper pop-star fan club number, like Brittany Spears, Jessica Simpson, or some other footnote in the book of pop culture history. An opportunity comes for Brandon to start recording a sports pick 900 number, announcing his picks each week. As mentioned, sports have been Brandon’s life and he’s able to get into the heads of every team playing, becoming quite a success at picking the winners. This catches the attention of Walter Abrams (Pacino), who runs a big time business giving advice to gamblers, and making a hefty profit by advising those gamblers to bet more money. With Brandon’s success at picking winners, Walter decides to build his future empire around the boy.

It is that concept of empire building that makes Two for the Money so interesting. While it’s fun to watch Brandon’s transformation into his more confident and marketable “John Anthony” alter-ego, the real depth of the movie comes from Brandon’s abandonment issues placed up against Walter, who says from the start he sees Brandon as himself, thirty years ago. Building an empire around Brandon is an action along the lines of leaving a legacy for the son Walter never had. Much like Brandon’s life though, Walter has his share of issues as well, including memberships in just about any group out there that has “anonymous” in the title. Of the most concern to Walter’s wife Toni (Rene Russo) is his former gambling addiction, an odd handicap for a man who runs a business so involved with the illicit 200-billion dollar a year industry. Combine Walter’s vices of old with health issues that make him painfully aware of his mortality and you have subjects of at least a dozen topics for Pacino to rant about at some point in the movie. His tirades may become somewhat predictable and redundant by the movie’s end, but damn if they aren’t fun to watch.

That’s the reason to watch Two for the Money too: this is Pacino’s movie. McConaughy may be the movie’s pretty boy face man, but his acting scenes are secondary in the film, tertiary if you consider Russo weighs in with some pivotal scenes as well. Instead McConaughy is relegated to the role of catalyst. His character is responsible for most of what happens in the movie, although he seldom gets the opportunity to react for more then a few minutes. McConaughy has had a few weighty roles in the past, but he’s skin and bones compared to the muscle of Pacino.

Director D.J. Caruso takes advantage of some great supporting actors as well. Whenever Armand Assante shows up in a film you know his character is going to be trouble. He’s just one of those actors that you cast to immediately add a touch of malevolence to the character. In a similar vein, Jeremy Piven is automatically going to be a funny as hell, annoying, egotistical ass. Just as in the HBO series “Entourage”, Piven doesn’t fail to provide that here and the second he appears on screen as one of McConaughy’s competitors you know you’re in for some laughs.

Where the movie goes a bit south is in its resolution. Some elements of the conclusion of the film are extremely predicable. Other elements that I, as a member of the audience, expected to see again failed to show up. The result is an ending that is less then satisfactory due to its omissions, but yet feels right for what it does cover. In other words, it’s an ending I’ll take, but it makes me leave the theater wondering why certain storylines were even put in the movie in the first place.

In many ways, this film reminds me of last year’s Friday Night Lights. The film takes on what could be an overtold type story (both which relate in some ways to sports) and adds some captivating dramatic depth to it, making the result surprisingly entertaining. While it’s unlikely most people will flock to the theaters to check out Pacino and McConaughy over claymation bunnies or Cameron Diaz in yet another role that allows her to strip down to her undies, Two for the Money is worth a look if you’re willing to give it the time.