Playing a game of basketball or football can be very exciting. So can watching one, or betting on the outcome. But as “Two for the Money” amply demonstrates, observing the guys who determine the odds on games isn’t very exciting at all. For the first hour or so the picture generates some heat by reason of Al Pacino’s predictably florid performance and D.J. Caruso’s lay-it-on-thick direction, but at about the halfway point it fumbles badly and never recovers.
Dan Gilroy’s script follows an oddly familiar route. Matthew McConaughey plays scruffy, raffish Brandon Lang, a star college quarterback whose knee gets wrecked in his last outing, dooming his plans for a pro career. His none-too-stellar options lead him into the wonderful world of telemarketing, in the course of which he accidentally lucks into a job as a web sports handicapper, and his gift for assessing likely game outcomes attracts the attention of Walter Abrams (Pacino), a New York-based entrepreneur who runs a cable-TV business that skirts gambling laws by offering predictions in return for a percentage of any winnings customers might gain from them. In effect Abrams persuades Lang to become his protégé, giving him not only confidence but a new identity as ultra-smooth Jonathan Anthony. The young man is initially very successful in picking winners, but soon falls into a slump. Abrams remains completely persuaded of his promise, though, and considers him a natural successor. Walter is less happy about the possibility that Lang/Anthony might be getting too chummy with his wife Toni (Rene Russo). In its last half the story veers more and more away from the sleazily vigorous environment of the telephone-laden sales room and Pacino’s exuberantly foul-mouthed rants to concentrate on Walter’s morose suspicions and Brandon’s escalating depression over his lack of success, even dragging in alternately violent and sentimental bits about dissatisfied customers, both rich and poor. And the ending opts–very unconvincingly–for a note of reconciliation and triumph.
The hothouse atmosphere of the first sixty minutes of “Two for the Money” is enough to hold one’s attention. In these initial stages this might not be a good movie–it’s basically “Boiler Room” boilerplate–but it’s a splashily seedy one, and Pacino juices things up with a typically oversized turn as the ambitious, ultra-cynical Abrams. (There’s a scene, for example, when he visits a gamblers’ anonymous meeting to hand out business cards to prospective customers that’s really vicious but undeniably funny.) But even here the premise is undermined by the fact that there’s no effort whatever to explain the process by which the assessments of probable winners are losers are made; doing so might have required a mathematical formula as complicated as the one celebrated in “Proof,” but its complete absence leaves a hole at the center of things. Even worse, though, the turn to gloom and disappointment half-way along leads to a second hour that grows increasingly tepid. Even Pacino, apart from an occasional outburst (like a sidewalk digression about his unhappy childhood that ends with a silly but punchy gag), can’t overcome the growing malaise. (And someone should have excised the periodic cardiac episodes that Walter suffers. This guy has more heart attacks than Fred Sanford.) McConaughey, meanwhile, barely holds his own against his high-powered co-star. It’s bad enough that he’s saddled at the very start with a flashback scene, with him as the long-haired college all-star, that’s completely ridiculous. But his performance thereafter seems composed of mere gestures, and they don’t have Pacino’s gleeful hamminess. As for Russo, she tries to personify steeliness and resolve, but Toni is a thinly-drawn character, and she doesn’t have chops to add much to it. (Never has the viewer had so much time to dwell on just how prominent her chin is.) Jeremy Piven contributes some motor-mouth shtick as another member of Abrams’ television team, but Armand Assante chews the scenery far too forcefully as a wealthy, vengeful customer, while Craig Veroni goes equally far seeking sympathy in his final scene as a ruined bettor from the other side of the financial spectrum. (And it’s kind of fun to see Gedde Watanabe, Long Duk Dong of “Sixteen Candles,” again, even if it’s very briefly as a chauffeur.) On the technical side Conrad W. Hall’s gloomy, dark-hued cinematography creates an appropriately menacing mood, but there are times when the abundance of shadow and silhouette seems grossly overdone. And Christophe Beck’s musical score is pedestrian.
So there are some amusingly operatic moments in “Two for the Money,” most of them courtesy of the shameless Al Pacino. But ultimately the movie neither wins, places nor shows. It finishes well out of the running.