Two for the Money is perhaps the most seriously deranged movie of the season — possibly of several seasons. Apart from the three lead performances, the movie is bad in the train-wreck sense. And that’s also what makes it fascinating.
Yes, a little while back, I applauded Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm for refusing to settle on a genre, but Two for the Money doesn’t refuse to settle so much as it clearly hasn’t decided what it wants to be when it grows up. And that cluelessness spills over into the screenplay by Dan Gilroy (Freejack), which simply makes no sense on any level if you pause to examine it.
The setup has Brandon Lang (Matthew McConaughey) as a football player whose career is sidelined by an injury that makes him a bad risk on the field. It turns out, however, that he has a knack for doping out the winners of football games — something he parlays into a job at a 900-number outfit that offers tips to people who gamble on such things. Enter Walter Abrams (Al Pacino), who runs a much more elaborate — and lucrative — version of the same service. He entices Brandon to move to New York, sets him up in a posh apartment, grooms him to be a swaggering city boy, provides him with a sports car and even gives him a new name, John Anthony (an obscure reference to the 1950s TV series The Millionaire)”
Not surprisingly, Brandon/John ends up with a case of swollen-headedness and things go awry — something that might have worked as the cliched country-boy-corrupted-by-the-big-city cautionary tale that it really is.
The movie, however, wants to be more and proceeds to throw out a variety of ideas with complete disregard for any need to follow through on them. For instance, Money more than flirts with a gay subtext by sometimes presenting Walter as having what can only be called a crush on Brandon — even to the extent of having him wax ecstatic over Brandon’s body. “All he does is work out and pick winners. You should see him with his shirt off — I have,” Walter tells his own wife, Toni (Rene Russo), with unabashed owlishness.
Reasonable enough. This isn’t bad territory to explore in any mentor-protege relationship — and it fits in nicely with Brandon’s own father issues (dad was a drunk who deserted him as a child, despite Brandon’s attempts to hold him by being ridiculously good at sports). The problem is that it never goes anywhere. And there are places it could have gone, especially with Walter virtually engineering a quasi-romance between Brandon and Toni — something that in a better script would have smacked of projection and consummation of his own desires by proxy.
This doesn’t keep it from being entertaining in Pacino’s scenery-chewing approach. His performance is so breathless that he never pauses long enough for you to question all the gear-shifting that the screenplay puts him through. But once this idea gets sidetracked, Walter’s actions become less and less comprehensible — something I suspect the film thinks it covers by a scene at a Gamblers’ Anonymous meeting where Walter paints himself (and everyone there) as being hooked on losing, though this doesn’t really explain anything beyond suggesting a self-destructive mindset.
There are other aspects of the movie that make little or no sense — partly because Gilroy either can’t be bothered explaining them, or doesn’t himself know the answers. Just exactly how does Walter make his money? He isn’t a bookie. He’s merely a tout who offers winners to the sucker sapiens, encourages them to wager large sums and expects them to cough up 10 percent of their winnings. How? Do they pay on the honor system? Are we to believe that all the bookies tell Walter how much their clients bet? Neither answer seems terrifically probable.
But then it’s even more improbable that anyone is still using the service after Brandon starts picking losers with alarming consistency. Of course, the film can’t arrive at its trite conclusion — and its even worse wrap-up scenes — if the clients had deserted the service altogether. And in this movie, that’s all the explanation you’re getting. At the same time, you do get a brilliantly unbridled Pacino performance, and more subdued, but effective, ones from McConaughey and Russo. And that’s what keeps the nonsense invariably watchable. Rated R for pervasive language, a scene of sexuality and a violent act.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke