Reel Opinions

Monday, October 31, 2005

Two For the Money

It's always sad to see a great actor appearing in a not-so great film. I mean, heck, does anyone look forward to Robert DeNiro films anymore after the guy's track record the past 6 or 7 years? Al Pacino is a great actor who also occassionaly slips into the "cashing a paycheck" phase, though fortunately not quite as often as DeNiro. I've always admired Pacino as an actor. Yes, it's true, the guy can be a bit too passionate in his performances, and his trademarked ranting and raving has been rightfully parodied in many a sketch comedy show. But, even when he's at his worst, you can always tell that he's at least trying to inject some life into the proceedings, and to me at least, he's always a pleasure to watch.

Two For the Money is a paycheck film for Pacino, but at least it's a watchable one. It's a simple morality tale that's been told too many times before, but it at least holds your interest. And a lot of that interest has to do with Pacino. Even if the man is just cashing a check here, he gives it his all, and gives a much better performance than the film deserves. He's bitingly funny, he always demands your attention in every scene he's in, and he all but steals the movie away from his less-talented co-star, Matthew McConaughey. I almost wish the film had completely dropped McConaughey's character, and just focused on Pacino. Not only is his character much more interesting, but we would have been spared of the horribly cheesy final scene that all but betrays the film's earlier attempts at integrity.

McConaughey plays Brandon, a once on the rise football quarterback who had his dreams cut short when he suffered a career-ending injury during a game. Despite his best efforts to get back in the game, recruiters are nervous to hire him because of his bad leg. These days, he lives with his mother, and is forced to make a living making pre-recorded messages for Jessica Simpson's 1-900 number. Fate steps in the day that the guy who usually records messages for the sports betting number calls in sick, and Brandon is left to fill in for him and make predictions for this weekend's football games. He's obviously a natural for the job, because of his personal experience and first-hand knowledge of the players. His accurate predictions make him an overnight success, and catches the attention of Walter (Al Pacino), a man who runs a professional and legal sports betting service in New York City.

Two For the Money is a standard "small town, good old boy gets lured to the big city, has it all, then loses it all" story that's been in the Hollywood machine probably from the very beginning of the industry. We can pretty much predict everything that will happen to Brandon every step of the way. Walter invites Brandon to come work for him. Brandon takes up the offer, moves to New York, and instantly starts indulging in the big city life that Walter provides him. (Fast cars, fast women, luxury apartments, etc.) Because of Brandon's skill at picking winners, Walter pretty much builds his entire business around him, and gives him a new public persona named "John Anthony" - a hot shot, egotistical, "gambling god" who can do no wrong. Naturally, Brandon's ego begins to grow to dangerous levels, and he truly begins to believe that he actually is his hot-shot alter ego that Walter creates for him whenever he appears on Walter's sports TV show. Brandon begins to lose his own identity, and when his luck at picking winners starts going downhill, he finds that people who he once considered his friends are suddenly not so friendly toward him once he's no longer the "golden boy" that Walter built him up to be.

Two For the Money's morality tale of greed and overinflated ego taking over a good person, while as old as the hills, could still work if handled properly. Unfortunately, direct D.J. Caruso and writer Dan Gilroy don't try anything new. What's worse, characters and plot developments are introduced and then disappear without any word or warning. For example, at the height of Brandon's success as "John Anthony", he is invited to fly to a tropical island where a famous multi-millionaire gambler (and thug) wants to hire him to pick his winners. Brandon takes the job, and helps the millionaire win for a while. But when he starts losing, the millionaire gets mad, and comes to New York along with some of his thuggish goons, and they threaten Brandon at gun point in public. (In broad daylight, no less...) The evil millionaire threatens to kill Brandon if he does not start picking winners again. Brandon's luck does not change after this encounter, yet strangely, we never see or hear from this evil millionaire ever again. He threatens Brandon's life, then exits the film. It seems like an entire subplot got cut out and left dangling with no resolution at all. It certainly doesn't help that Matthew McConaughey is not the most dynamic actor. He's not bad, mind you, he just does not do enough to make us truly sympathize with Brandon enough to make us want to see him crawl out of the hole he's gotten himself into. McConaughey's performance basically centers around his Southern drawl and flashing that toothy grin of his every chance he gets.

If the movie focussed solely on McConaughey, I'd probably be less kind to this film. Fortunately, there's Pacino and Rene Russo (who plays his wife) to pick up the slack, and make the audience perk up a little. As mentioned earlier, Pacino gives a passionate performance that is all at once hilarious and heartbreaking. He gets some wonderful and honest one-liners, and almost every line of dialogue that comes out of his mouth is a winner. Russo is also effective as his long-suffering, yet devoted wife. She used to be a junkie on the streets, and Pacino seems to be recovering from every bad habit in the book. (As Ruso's character says at one point, "If it says 'anonymous' at the end, he goes".) Russo's character has been making strives to improve her life, and to be a good mother to their 6-year old daughter. But Pacino's Walter seems to only care about his job and his vices. He's the type who shows his love with lavish birthday parties and dinners, and expensive gifts. Despite his fancy facade, Walter is a broken man, however. He has health issues, and seems that he could drop dead in an instant due to his tell-tale coughing fits and that he carries pills wherever he goes. Yet, he still wants to live the fast life, health be damned, and is not ready to give it up for anything. Sure, their storyline is almost as cliched as Brandon's rise and fall, yet Pacino and Russo make it work. They have great chemistry together, their dialogue is great and honest, and they bring life and dimension to their characters.

Once again, however, the screenplay betrays them, as the script once again brings up plot points then never mentions them again. After a collapsing spell at an airport, Walter's health issues are never really mentioned again. Up to that point, the movie reminds us off and on that his health is on a downward spiral, but then the movie seems to forget about it after that scene, and he never has any trouble again. Equally underdeveloped is a subplot concerning McConaughey and Russo having a possible attraction to each other. The movie never completely drops the subject, yet it never seems to be focussed on as much as it should, especially since the relationship between the two plays a big part in Pacino and Russo's final scene together. You get the sense that a lot got cut from this film, perhaps due to time restrictions. (The film already runs at a little over 2 hours.) Due to the small amount of time established to the possible affair, the conclusion of Pacino and Russo's characters, while dramatic enough, does not seem as powerful as it should be. The ending is further ruined by the filmmaker's decision to add a syrupy sweet "extra happy" ending sequence, which seems almost as if it were added at the last minute because test audiences wanted a truly happy ending. All it ends up doing is killing what little credibility the film had remaining.

Is Two For the Money a bad movie? Aside from the epilogue, not really. It just does not really do anything special that sets it apart from the pack. It's notable mainly for the strong performances of Pacino and Russo, but even they're not enough to fully save this movie from the dire pits of mediocrity. Pacino may have been cashing a check, but at least he made the movie worth watching. This is one time I'm actually glad he was in it for the money, as his talent makes the film watchable. Of course, I'd be even happier if Pacino was in a better movie. Maybe next time.

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