Matthew McConaughey and Al Pacino in Universal Pictures' Two for the Money - 2005
If you ask anyone in the know to name five of the best actors of the last thirty years, chances are you’re going to get Al Pacino in there somewhere. And the respect he has garnered is deserved. The Godfather. Serpico. Dog Day Afternoon. I mean, the guy is legendary. But somewhere along the line, he started playing Al Pacino instead of a particular character. It’s almost as though it’s not the actor, but the character of Pacino that is cast in these films. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. No one plays Pacino like Pacino, but after a while you start to wonder where the actor went. A filmmaker friend of mine pointed this out to me as we were watching the trailer for this week’s Two for the Money, and listening to Al growl to a sufficiently cowed Matthew McConaughey that “If you want something from me, you’re going to have to rip it from my talons!” Yikes. Occasionally Pacino still acts. Glengarry Glen Ross and Donnie Brasco come to mind. But mostly, as in Money, you get “Al Pacino stars as Al Pacino.” It’s too bad, because a little acting might have helped this film.
McConaughey is Brandon Lang, ex-college football star, current 900-number salesman. Though a ruinous knee injury changed his career path, Brandon has never lost his intense enthusiasm for the game, leading him to continually try-out, and subsequently get rejected, from nearly every pro-ball club in the country. But when big-time sports betting broker Walter Abrams calls up, Brandon gets an offer he can’t refuse. It seems that our hero, despite his lack of ability to actually play, has an uncanny knack for picking the winners, which makes him a star on the sports gambling circuit. Working with infomercials and 900-numbers, Abrams has created a mini-empire of consultation and prognostication. Though sports gambling is illegal in New York, where our story takes place, making predictions is not, and gamblers will pay through the nose for a chance at the big money being wagered in Vegas. Abrams brings Brandon on board, offering him fat commissions and a new identity as John Anthony, the Million Dollar Man. Cars, women, money, all at his fingertips, but what does he have to sacrifice to win it all?
The preview makes this film look much more simplistic than it actually is, though complexity doesn’t always equate to quality. Al Pacino’s Abrams is a strange character, given to awkward and confusing mood swings, leaving the audience unsure of what he really represents. At times he is an arrogant jerk, definitely the face of malicious temptation for young Brandon. At other times he is a broken down, desperate family man, a face incongruent with that other. Unfortunately, as written and as performed by Pacino, these variants are not simply the multifaceted character traits of a complex person. Instead they are independent of each other and seemingly from different people altogether. It’s almost as though Abrams is bi-polar. McConaughey also leaves something to be desired, but for a different reason. Though he is a charismatic personality; a very likeable actor, there is nothing below the surface. Even when emoting, McConaughey seems to have a mask on, shielding the true performance going on inside. Or maybe there’s nothing going on inside. Whatever the problem, I have seen very little variance in his performances from A Time to Kill, to Reign of Fire, to this movie. Whether he’s fighting dragons or putting money on the Giants, he’s always got that charismatic, Texas-boy shell, and I have no idea what’s underneath.
This is the third film I’ve seen this season with a major social axe to grind, though by far the least of the three. Where Lord of War railed against arms dealers, and The Constant Gardener took on irresponsible pharmaceutical companies, Two for the Money is an indictment of gambling in general, and sports gambling in particular. “What happened to love of the game?” the movie seems to ask as we watch the rise and fall of John Anthony’s Million Dollar Man. But the film lacks the courage of it’s convictions, pulling it’s punches by allowing everything to work out, giving us the equivalent of a hail-Mary pass to save the day. And who are the real villains here? The film seems to put the onus on the sales people shilling the wagers, and gives a pass to the actual gamblers themselves. One man, in a particularly poignant scene bemoans the fact that John Anthony talked him into betting big over a bad weekend. “I lost $380,000! I had a life!” Well, no one put a gun to your head. The film touches on gambling addiction, but skirts the issue by painting the gamblers themselves as dupes. At one point, Abrams attends a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting and holds the members captive with a stirring speech about the gambler’s innate need to lose in order to affirm life. But just as you begin to mull over this concept, he starts handing out business cards to the shocked attendees, reminding them that you never know when a relapse might strike. This inconsistency goes to the heart of the problem with this film. Two for the Money has an issue it wants to fight for, but isn’t willing to bet the farm to do it. Grade: C-
Two for the Money is rated R for language and sexual situations.
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