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TWO FOR THE MONEY, 2005
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Al Pacino, Rene Russo, Armand Assante, Jeremy Piven, Jaime King, Kevin Chapman
Brandon Lang loves football: an injury keeps him from the pros, but his quarterback's anticipation makes him a brilliant predictor of games' outcomes. Needing money, he leaves Vegas for Manhattan to work for Walter Abrams advising gamblers. Walter has a doting wife, a young daughter, and a thriving business, but he has problems: a bum heart, a belief he's a master manipulator, and addictions barely kept in check. He remakes Brandon, and a father-son relationship grows. Then, things go awry. Walter may be running a con. The odds against Brandon mount.
Brandon Lang (Matthew McConaughey) has to take an early retirement from the world of professional football because of a severe leg injury. While answering 900 numbers for a living he is recruited by heavyweight sports gambling broker Walter Abrams (Al Pacino) and quickly grows into an internationally renowned result picker. As he rises up the ladder he soon begins to see the darker side of being a high roller and the risk he’s putting himself and his clients in.
On a first glance it would be easy to write Two for the Money off as just another star vehicle for Pacino and McConaughey to ride a tidy little wage off. The truth is that this is a very intimate character study with two stunningly insightful performances by the two leads. Both Pacino and McConaughey enter the film doing their usual thing (that we have by now come to expect): Pacino throws his weight around and grabs your attention with his mighty presence and McConaughey wastes no time in stripping down to show off his well-oiled body. But they quickly shed these facades and dive deep into their parts showing us what lurks under their character’s skins.
Pacino has made a name for himself playing the role of the unconventional mentor in films like: The Recruit (2003) and Any Given Sunday (1999). But in Two for the Money Pacino plays a more conflicted mentor who despite his warmth and loving support is dangerously unpredictable. We see Abrams switch on those closest to him with aggression and malice. His wife Toni (Rene Russo) his moral core bares the brunt of much of Abram’s shady behavior and fits of rage. Pacino and Russo play out a wonderfully believable relationship between two people who have had difficult pasts. Toni suspects Walter has returned to gambling personally and Walter suspects her of pretty much everything else!
Enter Brandon Lang to shake this family up even more. Abram welcomes Lang into his business and life as his protÈgÈ. It’s clear Walter is looking for an air to his throne and sees much of his younger self in Lang as the raw potential. The molding begins with Abrams shaping Lang into the face he wants to put at the forefront of his empire. Walter suggests a new name (Mark Anthony) and builds his young protÈgÈ’s confidence as high as a kite. The money rolls in and everything seems on the up, although Walter’s eyes seem to be getting beadier keeping a watchful eye on the exchanges between Lang and his wife Toni. Things get more uncomfortable still when Lang requests a ten per cent cut of a two million win (that he picked) provoking a freak, violent reaction from his mentor during the celebrations.
From here the film shows us a classic portrait of the protÈgÈ becoming competitive with the mentor. The tensions rise with the emotional connection between Lang and Abram’s family serving only to intensify things more. Pacino cleverly reveals things about Abram’s that were concealed at the beginning. He is still a chronic gambler despite his passionate denial to Toni and Lang realizes that his mentor is extremely vulnerable. Another key element in the film is its depiction of the mortal danger Lang is in aside from the financial jeopardy. Their wealthiest client Novian (Armand Assante) physically threatens Lang in the park and urinates over him to put him at an all time low.
The film is ultimately about the sins of the father; Lang is suffering because of his faith in both his father and father figure. From the very beginning he is encouraged to play football by his father and then have his dreams of being a professional player crushed along with his leg. But what is worse is that his father had left him a long time before this. Then years later we see this pattern play out again with his adopted father figure Walter. McConaughey is spot-on in his portrayal of the good son who is wronged again. It’s truly amazing to see how loyal Lang remains to Walter despite the knocks he takes. Toni repeatedly recommends that he leave and escape his life as a pawn in Walter’s addiction to gambling but he doesn’t leave until he gets a win for Walter.
Perhaps this is because unlike his biological father, Walter doesn’t desert him? Rather, Walter ups the stakes and continues to believe in Lang’s talent at picking results even during their huge loses. No modern Pacino film is complete without a powerful, charismatic and philosophical mediation on the film’s central topic. It comes quite early on in the film during the therapy session for addicted gamblers:
“There is something... there is something inherently defective in you, and you, and you, and me, and all of us. We're all lemons. We look like everyone else, but what makes us different is our defect. See, most gamblers, when they go to gamble, they go to win. When we go to gamble, we go to lose. Subconsciously. Me, I never feel better than when they're raking the chips away, not bringing them in. And everyone here knows what I'm talking about. Hell, even when we win it's just a matter of time before we give it all back. But when we lose, that's another story. When we lose, and I'm talking about the kind of loss that makes your asshole pucker to the size of a decimal point - you know what I mean - You've just recreated the worst possible nightmare this side of malignant cancer, for the twentieth goddamn time; and you're standing there and you suddenly realize, Hey, I'm still... here. I'm still breathing. I'm still alive. Us lemons, we fuck shit up all the time on purpose. Because we constantly need to remind ourselves we're alive. Gambling's not your problem. It's this fucked up need to feel something. To convince yourself you exist. That's the problem.”
There isn’t another actor currently in Hollywood that can hold your attention for such a weighty monologue and keep you riveted for the entire delivery. While Pacino does participate in box office fare like Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) and Gigli (2003) he also comes around with these small character based movies that are real gems! They remind us that Pacino, McConaughey and Russo are in Hollywood for a reason and can deliver the goods when a good script is about.
The lasting impressions of this movie are the wonderful scenes of Pacino and McConaughey. Walter falls in the airport from what we think is a heart attack… and Lang falls to his aid. McConaughey quite perfectly plays the son without a father and in this moment he finally finds one! The scene is a remarkable piece of acting and filmmaking. It shows the beautiful moments that can be captured on film when you have great actors in front of your camera!
By Surinder Singh – April 2010
TWO FOR THE MONEY