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Two for the Money (6/10)

by Tony Medley

If I had to nominate the most knowledgeable, competent people in America, high on my list would be the ones who set the odds for NFL games every week. Their determination of point spreads is astonishingly accurate. If you look at the points before the games are played, sometimes there will be a spread that looks completely wrong, like the San Francisco 49ers by 1 over the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the following Monday if you look in the paper, you should not be surprised to see a score of 49ers 22-Steelers 21. The accuracy is almost beyond belief.

Based on a true story, this is a film about a guy, Brandon Lang (Matthew McConaughey), who has a knack, not only for picking winners, but picking point spreads and over and unders where bettors can not only pick who wins or loses and by how much, but can bet whether the total points scored by both teams will be more (over) or less (under) a certain number.

Brandon’s success brings him the attention of a New York sharpie, Walter Abrams (Al Pacino), who hires him to pick winners for his operation, which has a phone sell operation and TV show trying to entice gamblers into betting. Brandon is an enthusiastic, naive young guy; the cynical Walter has been around the block a few times. They establish a relationship, but is it father-son or is Walter an evil Svengali, taking advantage of Brandon?

This is a film full of promise, with good acting, that falls far short of its potential in many ways:

Item: There is a pickup scene early in the film that leads me to believe that either writer/executive producer Dan Gilroy, the person responsible for the dialogue, never had to approach a woman cold with a line, although Brandon’s success in this encounter is explained later in the film. Still, one would think that a guy we are meant to believe is hot, hot, hot would have a smoother approach. I asked the attractive young woman sitting next to me if what we just saw could really happen and she replied, “Not with me.”

Item: There are hints of sinister undercurrents at play, but they never appear, remaining as unfulfilled hints. Director J.D. Caruso’s failure to make the film darker keeps it from realizing its potential as compelling entertainment.

Item: Brandon and Walter get involved with a high roller, Novian (Armand Assante), who seems to be an underworld figure, to their regret. The dénouement of this relationship is as unfulfilling and unrealistic as the ending of the film, barely scraping the surface of the danger presented by Novian’s power, and what a powerful man like this would really do in such a situation.

Item: Walter’s wife, Toni (Rene Russo), is not nearly as mysterious or important a presence as she could have been. Because her character and raison d’etre is never developed, she remains a meaningless enigma, with about as much connection to the plot as Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern had in Hamlet. She is apparently only present for a plot device near the end of the film.

Item: The ending justifies compulsive gambling.

Despite the failings of the plot and the script, the first two hours were entertaining and seemed to be leading up to something. Five minutes later, I walked out of the screening thinking that I had wasted 125 minutes. I want to believe that it was a suit in New York who destroyed this film by insisting on such a trivial ending. As George Gobel might say, this ending is a pair of brown loafers in a world of tuxedos.

October 5, 2005