When Al Pacino first appears in Two For The Money, as the would-be king of a sports-betting empire, he's barking into the phone, incredulous that some two-bit circus operator won't lease out an elephant for his daughter's birthday. ("Hello, Ringling Brothers? Is this Barnum or Bailey?") Right away, it's clear that Pacino is in full hoo-hah mode, and the movie springs to life whenever he monologues on key philosophical principles, such as why his new protégé should punctuate his sentences with the word "fuck" because "it was good enough for Chaucer 600 years ago." Knowing what a subtle actor Pacino can be when he holds back has made it difficult to accept his scenery-chewing in films like Scarface and The Devil's Advocate, but maybe it's time to acknowledge how riveting these ostentatious performances can be. For all its swaggering bravado, his turn in Two For The Money is the reverse image of his Devil's Advocate character: Instead of the omniscient, all-powerful operator he presents himself as, he's a gambler grasping at a lifestyle that's always just beyond his means.
Too bad the movie is mostly a confused moral fable about Matthew McConaughey, a former college-football star with an almost supernatural gift for sports handicapping. After a knee injury permanently sidelines his career, McConaughey falls back on a dreary punch-clock job recording messages for 1-900 numbers, including a betting line that consistently bucks the Vegas odds. Soon enough, sports betting guru Al Pacino recruits him for a New York office where a team of fast-talking, chain-smoking prognosticators work like stockbrokers to high-stakes gamblers. Under Pacino's tutelage, the modest McConaughey is groomed into the chest-thumping winner that will take the business to a level where they can advise million-dollar bets from shady offshore big shots like Armand Assante. But surrogate son McConaughey develops something of an Oedipal complex when he lays eyes on Pacino's beleaguered wife Rene Russo.
Inevitably, the personal complications that infect Pacino and McConaughey's relationship coincide with a losing streak that's every bit as profound as the 80-percent record that brought them to glory. McConaughey's side of the story brims with gambling-movie clichés about the vacancies that his short-term victories create as the moral decay sets in; he's even given two separate personas, one the drawling, unpretentious quarterback from the sticks, and the other a fatuous, Benz-rolling city slicker named "John Anthony." Pacino remains the more interesting case, not just because he's capable of such erratic and surprising behavior, but also because there's something poignant about a gambler who's constantly trying to bet his way out of a deeper hole. Unforgivably long-winded at 122 minutes, Two For The Money could use a little more focus, but it perversely abandons the magnetic actor who might have provided it.