Friday, March 03, 2006

Review - Two for the Money

“Hoo-Hah!”. Two for the Money is Al Pacino’s latest film and unfortunately it’s a film we’ve seen many, many time before. Pacino has found himself a comfortable niche in the past decade playing ambiguous father figures who take a young protégé under their wing before revealing a shadier side to their nature. Aside from Donnie Brasco (which featured one of his best recent displays), the actor’s performances in City Hall, Devil’s Advocate and The Recruit have varied only by tiny degrees, if at all.

Two for the Money gives us more of the same; with Pacino grouching his way through a hackneyed screenplay which unsuccessfully tries to blend elements from Wall Street, Jerry Maguire and a hundred other movies - and comes off looking like a bit of an indigestible mess. But even if you feel like you’ve seen Pacino play this role too many times before you’ll probably be quite happy to endure it on this occasion; because even an off-colour Al is always watchable, and there are times in Two for the Money when he’s the only thing that is.

This time Matthew McConaughey is the young innocent who gets seduced by Al’s promises of fame and fortune. He plays Brandon Lang, a former footballer whose promising career was cut short by a terrible knee injury, and he now scrapes a living picking winners for a gambling hotline. Brandon is good at picking the teams, eerily good in fact, and his prowess soon catches the attention of the mysterious Walter Abrams (Pacino) who invites him to come and work for his own large-scale gambling operation in New York. Walter is a fairly unconventional boss, and when Brandon first enters his office he’s on the phone trying to get an elephant from the circus for his daughter’s sixth birthday - what a ker-azy character!

The ensuing narrative is resolutely uninteresting. Brandon is a roaring success in his new role, bringing in plenty of money for Walter and becoming something of a celebrity under the guise of ‘John Anthony’; the pseudonym he adopts when giving out tips over the phones or on Walter’s cable TV show. Before too long this once polite and decent young man undergoes something of a character change; he loses his distaste for bad language (Pacino: “it was alright for Chaucer, 600 years ago!”) and gets a liking for sharp suits, fast cars and faster women. The alteration Brandon undergoes is cleverly highlighted by director DJ Caruso (not David) in a scene where he chomps on a big cigar while abusing the tailor working on his suit. Subtle.

Caruso clearly doesn’t believe that subtlety or nuance have any place in this masculine world. The cinematography is glossy and slick, accompanied by a pounding soundtrack, and Caruso spends most of his time putting together montages filled with a laughable surfeit of macho posturing. Even the production design, with its gleaming personal gym and endless rows of plasma screens, seems to have been cooked up by someone who has read to many copies of Esquire or Maxim. However, at least Caruso manages to keep the film moving until Brandon’s fortunes start to take a downward turn, and then things completely fall apart.

Brandon gets cocky. He starts to take less care over the teams he picks to win and, from being a virtual licence to print money, he embarks on a spectacular losing streak. His sudden inability to pick a winner coincides with the company’s biggest financial weekend of the year and lands Brandon in hot water with one of its most lucrative gamblers, gangster Mr Novian (Armande Assante). But at this point in the proceedings Dan Gilroy’s screenplay begins flailing clumsily in all directions, picking up plot strands and then dropping them with wild abandon.

We are given a scene in which Novian threatens Brandon after he has lost a huge amount of money on his tips, and the scene ends with the promise that the gangster will return to collect his debts. But Novian never appears again - what on earth happened there? In similar fashion, Pacino coughs and splutters his way through a number of scenes, taking pills for his increasingly ailing heart, but these build-up scenes again come to nought; and Brandon’s brief fling with an attractive young woman (Jaime King) is quickly forgotten before being reintroduced over an hour later when it is more convenient to the plot.

At the centre of all this poor plotting and stylistic bombast, Matthew McConaughey looks baffled and overawed. All teeth and biceps, he seems most comfortable when taking part in one of the many ‘pumping iron’ montages Caruso drops into the narrative , but when called upon to actually act he fails to impress. McConaughey is obviously supposed to be playing a character who becomes a charmless, arrogant son of a bitch, but this doesn’t really work when we don’t like the guy he was in the first place. He is wooden and one-dimensional in an admittedly poorly-written role. Two for the Money has Rene Russo listed as executive producer, and her husband wrote the screenplay, so couldn’t she have got herself a more interesting role? Russo, who can be great when given the chance, plays Walter’s husband and spends the entire film throwing disapproving looks his way while almost getting involved in a romance with Brandon which neither actor can muster up the energy for.

Still, at least we have Pacino. Even though he’s playing the role at half speed he at least appears to have a pulse, which already gives him an advantage over the rest of the film. It’s a surprisingly underpowered Pacino turn - a shambling, croaky display which always seems to be building to a “Hoo-Hah!” that never arrives - but he does have the monopoly on any interesting or amusing touches which Two for the Money may possess. When bawling out one of his employees (Jeremy Piven, doing well with nothing), he shouts “your customers are jumping ship, you lactose-intolerant fuck!”. You what? It’s a line so arbitrary and nonsensical that it thankfully relieves the boredom the film had induced. There are other good Shouty Al lines - “you want something from me you’re going to have to rip it from my talons” - and a nice scene when he hands out his business card at a Gamblers' Anonymous meeting; but his efforts can’t sustain a turgid tale which runs over two hours.

Two for the Money gets more wayward and incomprehensible as it wears on. It loses the plot completely at the climax, where attempts to wring a sense of pathos from this tale are doomed to failure. There are attempts here and there to explore the father/son dynamic between Walter and Brandon but anything even remotely meaningful or interesting quickly gets lost in the general cacophony. Two for the Money is loud, dumb and long; and I’m pretty sure that the majority of people who do subject themselves to this testosterone assault will come to regret it. In fact, I’d be willing to bet on it.