- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2005

Al Pacino’s hoarse and hearty “hoo-ahh” from 1992’s “Scent of a Woman” marked the often serious actor’s turn toward self-parody. It’s now become a trademark, along with incessant over-acting and inky black locks that appear unnatural for his 65 years.

Still, he’s the key reason to watch the new gambling drama “Two for the Money,” although longtime fans may also be tempted to lament his choice of roles in recent years.

The movie sneaks us inside the world of sports betting, a seedy subset of addicts and enablers that deserves a big screen outing.

“Money” gets it half-right. When we’re not marveling at Mr. Pacino’s Florida tan and comically precise rasp, we lose ourselves in a billion-dollar industry that pirouettes on the right side of the law.

The film follows Brandon Lang (Matthew McConaughey), a National Football League hopeful whose future gets shattered by a major knee injury. He’s left with nothing except his love for the game — and his unerring knack for beating the point spread each weekend.

That gets the attention of Walter Abrams (Mr. Pacino), the czar of sports gambling who senses a sure thing in Brandon. Under Walter’s tutelage, Brandon becomes John Anthony, an aggressive sports salesman whose accuracy rate makes him a slick-haired superstar.

Of course, no hot streak lasts forever, and when Brandon’s Midas touch turns to copper, both his world and Walter’s start to implode.

Walter’s wife, Toni (Rene Russo), tries to preserve the bond between the two but becomes enmeshed in a quasi-love triangle that isn’t properly explored.

Gambling films are often poor bets — screenwriters must jury-rig each game, contest or poker hand to nudge the story in the right direction. When Brandon loses his touch, he loses it big time, and suddenly every prediction goes awry.

“Money” pays off with its father-son connection between the leads. We’ve seen Mr. Pacino in tutor mode before, both in “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997) and “The Recruit” (from 2003), but it’s an act that holds up well.

Mr. Pacino’s Walter is a bundle of contradictions. He’s a family man who longs for a surrogate son in Brandon but can’t help torturing his prodigy at every step. The performance lacks his signature meltdowns, and it still feels like a contrivance, albeit a colorful one.

Mr. McConaughey strays little from his standard screen persona, an aw-shucks country boy with looks and charisma to burn. What he and screenwriter Dan Gilroy fail to do, however, is illustrate why such a wholesome fellow would turn a blind eye to the devastation wrought by his betting lines.

Director D.J. Caruso (who helmed the unfairly maligned “Taking Lives”) captures the naked emotions coursing through the gambling underworld in a way that keeps our attention, even if it often makes little sense. What the film lacks is the tackiness that likely accompanies the real-life scene. It fleetingly captures that atmosphere in the scenes featuring Walter’s cable infomercials. Here, “Money” comes alive with sleazy personalities and the get-rich-quick promises that epitomize the betting universe.

“Two for the Money” is supposedly inspired by a true story. Yet the odds are stacked against the film becoming anything but a footnote to Mr. Pacino’s film career.

**

TITLE: “Two for the Money”

RATING: R (Harsh language, a violent act and one sexual situation)

CREDITS: Directed by D.J. Caruso. Written by Dan Gilroy. Production design by Tom Southwell.

RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes

WEB SITE: www.twoforthemoney.net

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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