Maybe Al Pacino is losing his satanic touch. As much as his latest corruption-of-the-innocent-boy movie sets up for the same pattern as his previous corruption-of-the-innocent-boy movies, it actually goes somewhere else. That is, it leaves the devil redeemed.
This probably sounds more complicated than it is. Two for the Money is nothing if not reductive. It opens on the ostensible victim, a sports-loving kid named Brandon (Matthew McConaughey), devoted to hitting baseballs and throwing footballs because he believes in his little boy’s heart that it’s a matter of “purity.” If he can make everything right on the field, his dad will smile rather than drink beer, and maybe he’ll even stick around, in some alternate universe. In his real life, Brandon’s dad leaves when he’s nine, and then the superstar high school and college QB wears a terrible wig and blows out his knee during a big game, appears forlorn under an eye-of-god camera, and lands himself a job in a 900-numbers cubicle, answering calls to the Jessica Simpson Hotline.
All this woe-is-me voiceover sets up Brandon’s need for a new daddy, which Pacino’s Walter is all too inclined to exploit. When Brandon shows his gift for predicting sports events for the 900-number joint (he’s picking winners at the rate of 75%), Walter hires him for his own New York-based sports wagering company. Yes, Walter allows, sports betting is technically illegal, but we all know “everything’s about money” and this particular business is, in fact, booming, circulating billions of dollars annually.
Brandon is easily sold, or bought, depending on your perspective. He accepts Walter’s terms: he rechristened “John Anthony,” lives, works out, and works in Walter’s building, adopts a slicked-back haircut and designer suits, and, painfully naïve rube that he is, believes that the pretty girl (Jaime King) Walter purchases for him one evening actually “likes” him. At the office, Brandon is immediately successful and so, a threat to those coworkers also in search of daddying. Longtime NFL predictor rival Jerry (Jeremy Piven) snarls and snipes, while others (older and more bulbous-nosed) tend to take the next big thing in stride, understanding that he’ll burn out soon and enjoying the traffic he brings to the office in the meantime.
But Walter’s got all kinds of ulterior motives, none especially disguised, except, it seems, to Brandon. For one thing, he’s a former gambler-addict-mess himself, now seeming to focus his energies on his six-year-old daughter and recovering junkie/beauty salon owner wife Toni (Rene Russo). Though she believes that “Walter’s held together by meetings,” the film reveals otherwise, in part by making its smartest point — not gambling on gambling is gambling. That is, while Walter and Brandon and their fellow handicappers all talk big about not actually gambling, only picking winners for clients and drawing money from their winnings, in fact, it’s all gambling. That Brandon is supposed to be a younger, more gifted, and better muscled Walter only sets him up to be predictable, as the two compete for attention, dominance, and in a weird way, Toni, who plays sometimes nurturing, occasionally chiding, and infinitely patient mother to both.
The boys also share a certain erotic/athletic appreciation of Brandon’s body, which eventually becomes an object of betting in its own right (this gamble is the film’s climactic reveal, but nearly the surprise it pretends to be). While Brandon’s self-love is obvious enough by his incessant mirror gazing and working out, Walter reveals his own lusty potential when he espies Brandon’s naked torso through a window, and spends a few minutes insisting that Toni notice his beauty. She resists, honestly believing she’s in love with her craggy-crotchety husband, but also recognizing in him a mirror of her own addictions and losses.
While Toni’s story suggests some intriguing complications — what is going on with her devotion to this man who so distrusts and fears her? — Brandon’s saga is as boring as can be — he gets cocky, he overreaches, he falls (during one especially yucky punishment scene, a client [Armand Assante] finds him in Central Park and has a thug hold him down so the client can piss all over him). Eventually, Brandon finds his way back to himself, that is, Brandon rather than “John Anthony” (again, his faith in a real self that might be lost and found is rather quaint)/ Walter’s story is much more compelling, because he does, at some level, get what gambling is about.
At one point during his lessons for Brandon, he drags the student and Toni into a Gamblers’ Anonymous meeting and begins, by way of a speech about his long-term sobriety and his earnest understanding of the group members’ plaints, then explains that they’re addicted to losing, not winning or gambling per se. And so he invites them to use his service, in order to be winners, and break their addiction to losing. “Gambling’s not the problem. We’re the problem, “he rasps, “We’re lemons. We’re addicted to losing.”
It’s something of an ingenious speech, ebbing and flowing, and Pacino chews it up as you might expect. It’s a lie, too, which is the underlying point of Two for the Money. Losing or winning is not what’s at issue in gambling, at least for high stakes adrenaline junkies. Rather, it’s the potential that can be experienced only in the pre-conclusion moments. And here it becomes clear that Toni is the major stake for the two boys.
At the same time, Russo is the film’s most compelling, least regular aspect (the fact that she executive produced suggests as well that options for over-40 women actors are even fewer than you’ve heard). Fantastically made up and dressed, she’s playing a meticulous, self-aware fashion expert among man-boys. Toni, it appears, understands the stakes.