Two for the Money: Caruso’s Thriller-Melodrama, Starring Al Pacino, Matthew McConaughey and Rene Russo

Al Pacino play a familiar juicy role in the “new” thriller-melodrama, Two for the Money.  With the manic energy, charisma, and rapid-fire delivery, that have made him a screen icon, Pacino bares his acting chops and tricks, but he’s always fascinating to watch. Pacino carries the flawed and predictable morality play pretty much on his shoulders, with some help from Matthew McConaughey and Rene Russo.

As written by Dan Gilroy and directed by D. J. Caruso, this is yet another version of a Faustian morality tale, another parable about the vices of Capitalism. As such, it bears strong resemblance to Taylor Hackford’s “The Devil’s Advocate, which also starred Pacino. Marred by a literal title, “Two for the Money,” could have easily been named “The Devil’s Advocate,” which describes accurately its narrative.

You may recall that in the legal thriller “The Devil’s Advocate,” scripted by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy, Keanu Reeves plays a small-time Florida defense attorney, corrupted by ambition, greed, and vanity. Pacino is the head of a multinational law firm who lures Reeves to New York with promises of fame and fortune. Taking him to the top of a skyscraper, Pacino promises Reeves to make him the lord of all he can see from there. But what do these profits mean if in the process Reeves loses his girl (Charlize Theron) and church-going mother. Marred by Reeves, who never convinced that he had the brainpower and smarts necessary for exacting legal work, “Devil’s Advocate” was a commercial failure.

As in “Devil’s Advocate,” this story is two-generational, contrasting Pacino with a younger, more handsome man, Brandon, played by McConaughey in the Keanu Reeves’ role. Also like the 1997 melodrama, which was uncertain of its tone, there’s a surrogate relationship between Pacino and McConaghey as his trainee-son.

Rather shrewdly, the writers have expanded the female role (in “Devil’s Advocate,” Charlize Theron had nothing to do) and in the hands of Rene Russo, Toni emerges as the third strong wheel in the triangle, who comes between husband Pacino and brother-like/potential lover McConaughey.

If the story is the same, the locale is different. The high-stakes yarn is set in the voracious, cutthroat world of high-roller gambling, where fortunes are won—or lost—on Monday. In this adrenaline world of wheeler-dealer gamblers, riches are made and destroyed with the flip of a coin, both literally and figuratively. With millions of dollars on the line, reckless players engage in a “who’s coning whom” game, where the bets are high and the losses higher.

This uniquely American melodrama marks the return of Pacino to the role of a super-power player. With a searing performance, Pacino commands the screen as Walter Abrams, a recovering addict-turned-betting advisor with a delicious lust for power. “If you want something from me,” Walter says, “youre gonna have to rip it out of my talons,” and he means every word of it.

Part Svengali, part Pygmalion, once again Pacino plays an older character, plagued by physical or mental problem (he was a blind officer in “Scent of a Woman”), that takes a young, innocent man under his wings and transforms him into a more seasoned and cynical competitor. In due course, the young protg surpasses his master, leading to a power play of egos to some disastrous results.

In “Scent of a Woman,” Pacino’s Oscar-winning role, it was Chris ODonnell, in “Devil’s Advocate,” it was Keanu Reeves, and here it’s Matthew McConaughey, as Brandon Lang, a cocky but washed-up former college football player who is on the cusp of exploiting his true talents, his ability to pick football winners.

This uncanny knack attracts the ever-hungry Walter into Brandon’s small-time world. After a short tutelage, Brandon holds his own as an ingnue sports advisor, fighting for his piece of the turf against the paternal, yet ruthless Walter

Rene Russo plays Toni, Walter’s gorgeous yet life-hardened wife, a recovering alcoholic. Toni wields the true power in her home, balancing Walter’s precarious ambition and serving as a reminder that his inner demons can always burst out in the open. Giving a quiet muscle to their makeshift family, Toni tolerates neither Walter’s attempts at self-destruction nor Brandon’s descent into gambling mayhem. Though not exactly the moral center, Toni serves as a mediator between the two men, and ultimately rescues both from precipitous decline.

The three appealing actors make a dynamic triangle that engages our attention even when the plot meanders and gets ludicrous. Exposing the ugly, ruthless side of American capitalism, the job of the film is to restore our faith in the basic goodness of the American Way of Life, without tarnishing it too much. Drawing parallels between the domestic and public arenas, “Two for the Money” puts financial and human fortunes on the line, resting the balance of power on one unique family.

The performers help us viewers accept willingly the invitation to enter into this nourish seductive tale, and experience vicariously the high-roller gambling where those with fortunes to burn and money to risk play a deadly game.

A few words are in order about Brandon as a uniquely American type. Brandon has nurtured a sport dream that’s taken him from the peewee leagues to college ball. Toiling away for years in a dreary, windowless cubicle of a Vegas 900-number racket almost bearable, he waits for the one acceptance letter that will change his life. Problem is, Brandon is no longer a bankable commodity as a football player. Crushing leg injuries sidelined his dreams of ever playing in any pro league. But then, Brandon tacitly gets a shot in the arm, when he receives a letter from an unlikely and unexpected scout named Walter.

For Walter, kingpin of the country’s biggest sports advisory service, Brandon is more than a washed-up quarterback with a seeming knack for picking winners in every weekend’s football match-ups. Taking Brandon under his wings, Walter makes him the key player to selling nearly 100-percent certainty in one uncertain world, sports gambling. In fact, Walter is so convinced of Brandon’s as yet untapped acumen that he’s betting his own future on it.

Walter presents the opportunities to Brandon is such an alluring way—he can call his own paycheck, move to glamorous Manhattan, live a luxurious lie—that Brandon can’t turn it down. Soon, Brandon, not unlike Julia Roberts’ hooker in “Pretty Woman,” begins to reap the rewards of consumer capitalism. He begins to enjoy every moment and every aspect of his new status as Walter’s golden boy, growing more comfortable in the high-rolling lifestyle of Walter’s privileged world.

As expected, mentor-protg interaction quickly evolves (and devolves) into a surrogate father-errant son relationship, as Brandon becomes closer with Walter, his wife Toni, and their daughter Julia (Chrislyn Austin).

From their very first meeting, there’s sexual tension between Brandon and Toni and it’s a matter of time before their intimate rapport assumes a more physical dimension. In what’s the plot’s most contrived point, Walter seems to be watching them at every crucial moment, while they believe he’s out of town. Not a single embrace or kiss passes by without his watchful eyes.

As Walter grooms the small-town ex-athlete into a shrewd front man, Brandon’s prophetic skills fatten Walter’s business empire. In the manner of Pygmalion, Walter forges a new identity for Brandon, and a new pseudonym, John Anthony, with all the accoutrements that money can buy. He gets anything he wants: women, cars, worship from colleagues and respect from grateful customers.

Brandon’s ability to pick winner reels in the ultimate big fish, Puerto Rico’s notorious Novain (Armand Assante) a gambler of outrageous means who plays in a league of his own. The protg package is now complete. Brandon has a fast car and fast girl, Alex (Jamie King). Not surprisingly, he becomes the object of jealousy at his office by rival Jerry (Jeremy Piven), who loses his temper and job, and shark colleagues, Reggie (Ralph Gorman) and Southie (Kevin Chapman).

As Walter’s ultimate creation, Brandon is a clown in a media circus, with his own TV show. But can money buy everything Is the Pope Catholic Predictably, Brandon begins to feel unsuited for his identity, living a life that doesn’t belong to him. Just as predictably, a moral crisis ensues that leads to vocal and violent confrontations with Walter.

Following in the footsteps of other easily corruptible yet deep down honest American heroes, such as Charlie Sheen in “Wall Street,” Brandon leads to a naive resolution that may be ideologically satisfying, reaffirming the more positive face of the American Way of life, but emotionally dishonest. The overblown climax and redundant ending undercut the tale’s slightly subversive and perverse nature. It’s like the movie wants to have the cake and eat it too.

Caruso, who previously helmed “Taking Lives” and “The Salton Sea,” movies that no many saw, shows a progress as a filmmaker, giving his saga a glitzy look and frantic pace. Cinematographer Conrad W. Hall, son of the late genius and Oscar-winner, who formerly lensed “The Punisher” and Panic Room,” endows the film with slick imagery as befits the story’s locale.

The problems, however, reside with the script of Dan Gilroy (“Chasers,” “Freejack”), which recycles a lot of clichs and ideas from other films, particularly “The Devil’s Advocate,” even if he situates them in a milieu that has not been exhausted by Hollywood before. Midway, what was a taut thriller evolves into a moralistic melodrama, an allegory of capitalism, replete with disingenuous human touches and fake ideological messages.

Nonetheless, even if his landing is fraudulent, Brandon’s journey, while it lasts, is enjoyable in large measure to Pacino’s embodiment of charismatic evil, a perversely attractive turn that makes Brandon’s temptation all the more believable.

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