Don’t bet your life on it

Film skillfully exposes the less-than-anonymous world of gambling … and McConaughey’s pectorals

Katrina Wilber

The higher and quicker you climb, the harder you fall.

In “Two for the Money,” directed by D.J. Caruso, a good guy gets caught up in a game of excess – too much excitement, and too much fame and glory, way too fast.

Matthew McConaughey is Brandon Lang, a former Division I football star whose career-ending injury led to a dead-end job. His encyclopedic knowledge of football catches the attention of Walter Abrams (Pacino), who hires him to work in the risky business of sports betting.

People call Walter’s New York-based company for information on which sports teams to bet on. Betting on sports “is illegal in 49 states, including this one,” Walter proudly proclaims. But he’s found a way to work around that and make a nice profit while he’s at it, and Brandon’s the guy he needs to ensure that the money keeps rolling in. He gets rid of Brandon Lang, gives him the pseudonym John Anthony, and builds an empire around the man who never loses.

But luck is fickle and smiles on a person for only so long. Brandon/John gets so caught up in his new life that he loses whatever it was that made his predictions dead-on. It’s something he can’t put his finger on, and neither can the people who put their trust and their money in his hands. And he’s not the only one who loses.

Caruso doesn’t hold back when it comes to the highs and lows of betting. Walter, a former gambler, starts up again because he misses the rush, the moment he lives in between the time he makes the bet and the time he gets the result. He bets on everything, from whether Brandon can get a gorgeous girl in a restaurant to go with him, to betting on the fidelity of his own wife.

With Rene Russo as Toni, Walter’s wife, the three characters live a precarious life held in the balance by the strength and weaknesses of college and professional football teams. Walter considers Brandon the son he never had, but he’s a jealous man: The harmless bond forged between Brandon and Toni drives him to the brink of madness.

While the film focuses on sports betting, Caruso found a way to appeal to the female demographic: Include scenes with a shirtless McConaughey lifting weights. The cameras circle his glistening, muscular body like salivating sharks around a surfer in Malibu.

As Walter, Pacino is brilliant. He’s endearing yet irritating, obsessive but carefree. In a funny but ironic scene, he delivers a lengthy monologue to the crowd at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, then proceeds to hand out business cards.

The film drags at times because it tries to tell too many stories at once. Caruso shows only snippets of Brandon’s family back in Las Vegas, and the sporadic scenes with an in-and-out-of-luck dry cleaner who loses everything aren’t quite enough to garner the empathy these characters deserve.

Despite shortcomings, “Two for the Money” is moralistic without preaching. It has comedic moments, but for the most part, it is dead-on in its analysis of human fallibility when luck is pushed too far.