Sunday, October 09, 2005

REVIEW: Two For the Money

"Two For the Money" is a film about sports gambling, focused not on the gamblers or athletes or even the sports but on quasi-legal "tipsters" who do brisk business offering betting picks to gamblers for a nominal fee (and a cut of the winnings, of course.) On the plus side, this is a new and original vantage point from which to approach the worn gambling genre. On the minus side, it's a new and original vantage point that largely involves watching people watching TV. One of the people we watch watch TV is Al Pacino, which is helpful but doesn't solve the problem. Even Pacino can only distract us from the fact that a movie isn't interesting for so long.

Pacino's Walter Abrams, a recovered gambling addict who runs a powerful tipster firm, is technically the antagonist of the film, opposite Matthew McConaughey as Brandon Lang, an injury-sidelined quarterback with a talent for picking winners. Abrams hires Lang for this talent, with a larger plan to turn him into a mythic super-tipster under the alter-ego of "John Anthony: The Million Dollar Man." Suddenly, Lang is rich and powerful, but Abrams is controlling and manipulative. Has he been completely honest? Will small-town Brandon be seduced by the questionable morals of the big city? Could it BE any more predictable where this is headed?

It's not just that the film is much too similar to Pacino's previous "sinister mentor" turn in "The Devil's Advocate," (itself largely a dark inversion of his "Scent of A Woman" bit,) it's that it's awash in the cliches of the entire "seduced by power and money" genre. This goes all the way back to Faust, and we've just been through it all too many damn times. Brandon's new set of clothes, the fancy car, the "my mother says I sound different," bit. The sudden "hey, waitamininit..." 2nd act mood switch from Walter. The mind-games. The easily-dismissed red herring baddie (Armand Assante.) Rene Russo as Walter's straight-arrow wife.

It's not that it's not well acted, it is. And the direction is competent and well-staged and all of that. And yes, Pacino has a standout scene involving a gambling addiction support group. But it's all just covering too much well-worn ground. Too many scenes we've seen before in better movies, and the film adds next to nothing to the mix that might've made it fresh or interesting. By the time the film gets to it's central axis, that Walter is willingly serving as a perfectly-imperfect stand-in for Brandon's deadbeat dad (who, of course, was the catalyst for Brandon's sports fixation) not only do most of us already "get it" but also where it's going.

Here's a quick self-test to determine just HOW used-up the film actually feels: Early on, there's a dinner scene where Walter challenges Brandon to pick up a random blonde in order to prove to them both his abilities as a pitchman. Now, guess whether or not he wins AND guess what is later revealed about this occurance. I was right, and I'll bet you are too. Yawn.