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Two For the Money **½

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

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"Put down $1,000 on the Detroit Lions to win the Super Bowl. Why are you looking at me like that?"

TWO FOR THE MONEY 
(Courtesy of SFStation.com)

Starring: Al Pacino, Matthew McConaughey, Rene Russo, Armand Assante, Jeremy Piven. Rated R.

“Networks don’t cover it,” Walter Abrams tells his young apprentice. “The government can’t tax it. But sports betting is a $200-billion-a-year business.” He’s right, of course. Thanks to the Internet and its many offshore gambling sites, sports betting has become a mainstream phenomenon, more profitable and accessible now than at any time during its long, infamous history. A very interesting movie could be made about the professional handicappers whose guesses can make or break a client’s bankroll, but Two for the Money isn’t it.

It is, however, a showcase for a familiar Al Pacino performance. As Abrams, a compulsive gambler who just happens to run a sports betting service, he neatly merges two characters from his repertoire: John Milton, the cunning devil who led Keanu Reeves down the path to wealth and sin in Devil’s Advocate, and Lefty Ruggiero, the down-on-his-luck mobster who introduced Johnny Depp to the mob in Donnie Brasco. Here, he seduces Matthew McConaughey with promises of fame and riches, and for a time, they’re a winning team. When the money stops rolling in, though, Abrams self-destructs, and McConaughey returns to life as a former star quarterback slumming with the family in Las Vegas.

It’s difficult to believe that a true compulsive gambler could run a betting house and resist the urge to lay down a wager of his own, but Abrams is fond of telling people – particularly his star protégée, Brandon Lang (McConaughey) and his own wife (Rene Russo) – that he’s been straight for 18 years. And why not? He’s making money hand over fist with his all-star crew of handicappers, and even then he keeps pressing for more. He’s the kind of guy who hands out business cards at meetings for gambling addicts, and while the going’s good there’s a noticeably devilish glint in his eyes.

When Brandon’s picks stop panning out, though, Abrams reveals that he’s back to gambling – and that he’s lost his fortune and possibly his wife. Abrams is a desperate loser, and the only time he feels alive is when he’s down and out. He’s an interesting character, too, but he’s trapped in a movie that’s a bit too messy. Is it an unflinching glimpse into the inner workings of sports gambling? Sorta. Is it the story of a confused kid discovering the father figure he never had in Pacino’s slick hustler? You bet. Is it the tale of an addict who’s determined to lose it all? That, too.

It works for a time, but Two for the Money tries to be too many things, and by the time it reaches its wildly confounding conclusion, it collapses under the weight of those ambitions. The acting is good enough – McConaughey excels at playing aw-shucks types who win the world over with their gentle charm. And Jeremy Piven lends an enjoyable touch of fast-talking crudity to the proceedings, as a fading star in the handicapping community with the same fiery temper as Ari Gold, Piven’s character on HBO’s Entourage.

As for Pacino, his performance is capable enough, but his over-the-top mannerisms and flamboyant sermons are wearing thin. When the material burns bright enough, as it did in Devil’s Advocate, the fire-and-brimstone theatrics ignite a spark. Here, they fizzle. Pacino can sleepwalk through this kind of role, and he knows it. In Two for the Money, he comes dangerously close to self-parody, and for all his impassioned rants, there’s something labored in his demeanor. His is the weariness of the singer who knows all the words and all the notes, but who’s lost interest in the song. 

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