Hoping to cash in on the conjoined passion for sports and gambling, “Two for the Money” is a parlay that doesn’t quite pay off. Al Pacino delivers moments in his showy, textured portrayal of a big-time “sports adviser,” but there are too many nagging echoes of roles past — a little “Glengarry Glen Ross” here, a touch of “The Devil’s Advocate” there, maybe just a flutter of “Scent of a Woman.” Despite nice touches, pic meanders in the middle and ends flatly, auguring a box-office score that looks like a long shot to cover Universal’s bet.
Although inspired by a true story, the production notes concede that the foundation was “expanded, deepened and embellished,” which comes as no surprise, given this “Wall Street”-like tale of a young man dazzled by corrupting wealth before the inevitable skid.
As Brandon Lang, a former college quarterback whose NFL dreams are sidelined by a career-ending knee injury, Matthew McConaughey looks ripped, all right, and more than a little hungry. Trapped in a text-messaging job, he stumbles onto football handicapping, catching the eye of Walter (Pacino), who whisks him off to New York.
Walter’s business is perfectly legal, peddling advice to high-rolling bettors, then claiming a percentage of their winnings to keep the intoxicating flow of information coming. Sports gambling is a $200 billion a year industry, the fast-talking Walter notes, explaining that they are “selling certainty in an uncertain world.”
At first, Brandon has the Midas touch and, in a none-too-subtle twist, forms an almost-paternal bond with Walter, his own dad having abandoned him as a kid. The money and new haircut and tailored suits roll in, as do ties to an enormously wealthy gambler (Armand Assante) who could potentially catapult their enterprise to a new level.
The freshest wrinkle in Dan Gilroy’s script is that Walter is no amoral Gordon Gekko but a more complicated creature. He loves his doting wife (Rene Russo) and young daughter while struggling with his own litany of addictions — which provide the basis for his lengthy, rapid-fire speech at an “anonymous” group meeting, one of the film’s strongest scenes.
As the action plods on, though, the ambivalence toward Walter muddies the movie’s direction, lurching pic somewhat awkwardly into a last quarter that briefly builds suspense then just as quickly deflates it — along with any rooting interest in the outcome.
On the plus side, Pacino is in his element here, variously self-destructive, raging, lapsing into chest-grabbing fits, cajoling and charming — sometimes all at the same time. McConaughey generally holds his own as the steely yet vulnerable protege, but beyond that central pairing the cast barely registers. Russo’s character is thinly drawn, and Jeremy Piven’s highly caffeinated turn as one of the handicappers bears a striking resemblance to his “Entourage” alter ego Ari Gold.
Director D.J. Caruso (“Taking Lives”) also dawdles a bit too long working up to the fall, inasmuch as there’s limited drama in watching Brandon win repeatedly. Possible side plots regarding Brandon’s family and a beautiful woman he picks up in a restaurant, meanwhile, receive such perfunctory treatment that any substance appears to have been sheared away.
In light of the sensitivity surrounding sports gambling, the NFL wasn’t about to be caught dead anywhere near this production and has even prevented Universal from running ads during games. As a consequence, there are vague references to “Super XXXX” (a playoff game, not an over-sized beer) and funky team uniforms in the fleeting football sequences that resemble the collegiate Division II ranks. Several football announcers do lend their voices to the festivities, along with radio personality Jim Rome.
Given the title and subject matter, “Two for the Money” invites all manner of sports metaphors, but one should suffice — that of a top-notch star and accomplished role players who are talented enough to exhibit flashes of brilliance but are restricted, in the final analysis, by an unimaginative offense.