Super Bowl Sunday, the last great shared experience in American culture, is nearly in sight. Millions of metric tons of nachos will be consumed, thousands of Crying Jordan memes will either delight or annoy fans of the Carolina Panthers or the Denver Broncos, and billions of dollars will be gambled away. Only about $120 million will be bet legally for Super Bowl 50, which seems paltry compared to the nearly $4 billion that the American Gaming Association estimated was bet illegally for Super Bowl XLIX. Moreover, this accounting does not even factor in the new money rushing into whatever's left of daily fantasy sports, nor the numerous publicity bets local politicians make each other. Foxboro, Massachusetts is still eagerly awaiting the relocation of the Space Needle after last year's Super Bowl win. There's honestly not that much to see there without it.
A little over a decade ago, one of the greatest actors of all time, Al Pacino, was in the midst of a late-career semi-renaissance. Not all the movies he made during the 2000's were of high quality, but even when roles and circumstances led him to playing a caricature of himself, he was often able to flip the situation to his advantage. The same could be said about Matthew McConaughey, who became a legitimate star in the late 1990's, but afterward was mostly cashing in on his image as America's Probably High Superhunk before his True Detective/Dallas Buyers Club/Interstellar comeback.
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When these two titans of American cinema teamed up, it made for a movie that lives on more strongly in convenience store discount DVD racks than in the American zeitgeist. It's not an especially good film, but only post-Oscar Al Pacino and pre-Oscar Matthew McConaughey could make a sports gambling flick as simultaneously intense and weirdly laid-back as 2005's Two For The Money.
One-time "Unsolved Mysteries" murder victim Matthew McConaughey is Brandon Lang, and is also John Anthony, Lang's high-rolling alter ego. Lang has daddy issues and a golden arm that guide him to the top of the college football quarterbacking ranks. Unfortunately, our hero compliments his gnarly, proto-Charlie Whitehurst hairdo with a gnarly dislocated knee and his playing days are over. After six years of basically being Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite, he is stuck making recorded messages for the Jessica Simpson Hotline, because it's 2005 and those who would normally answer the Jessica Simpson Hotline were fighting for our freedom in Iraq.
Someone in the office gets sick. Lang knows football, so he's suddenly picking football games, and very well at that. Before he can branch out into the Jessica Simpson Pro Football Picks Hotline, he's poached by the mysterious handicapper Walter Abrams. Lang is then flown from Las Vegas to the real gambling capital of the United States—Brooklyn, New York. There he meets the incomparable Al Pacino, whose mannerisms, I'm emulating, as I type this (hoo ah!).
It's fairly easy to see Lang/Anthony's trajectory after Abrams hires him. He gets his hair done by a foxy 50-year old woman who looks 40, played by the incomparable Rene Russo, who, needless to say, is Abrams' wife, Toni. Lang exercises a whole lot, and the adrenaline/testosterone high gets him to a mental state where New England -70 against the Browns is a good idea. Lang rides this handicapping hot streak onto Abrams' TV show—he has a sports gambling TV show, like the kind you see all over the airwaves—where he usurps the throne of one Jeremy Piven as the Bro-iest Bro of Them All.
As happens in every gambling story, from Dostoevsky's The Gambler to Wahlberg's The Gambler, McConaughey's character starts to get too big for his britches. Lang guarantees to go perfect one Sunday, which unfortunately he does, raising expectations and lowering his standards. There is a moment where you think the plot will delve into Runner Runner territory—or, anyway, you would think this if you remember that Runner Runner is also a movie that exists—but Brandon doesn't even answer his estranged father's call, and the daddy issues are never directly addressed again. What is addressed, however, is the increasingly tense relationship between Lang, Abrams, and Toni.
Abrams is all kinds of screwed up, and not only because he orders an elephant for his daughter's birthday party. Abrams is (surprise) a recovering gambling addict who uses 12-step programs to both keep himself on the wagon and get others off of it. He also suffers from Unspecified Heart Ailment, which is constantly used as a red herring that never pays off, to the point where Pacino fakes a cardiac episode in the middle of LaGuardia Airport. Part of me hopes against hope this was unscripted, and Al was really fucking with McConaughey in an extremely Method way, but I doubt it. I wouldn't put it past baroque late-stage Pacino, but nothing in Two For The Money is that spontaneous.
The inevitable comeuppance happens quickly and then takes its precious time to leave. Lang becomes lazy with his picks and starts losing, a lot. A dry cleaner goes bankrupt thanks to Lang, and what is much, much worse but not really, a high roller named Mr. Novian loses a few bucks and gets so mad that he flies to Brooklyn to confront him; the resulting scene features Armand Assante peeing on Matthew McConaughey, but not in a fun consenting adults way. Lang is told by Toni that Abrams is gambling again, but as we all learned from an earlier Pacino movie, Nothing. Is. What. It. Seems.
The playoffs come, and Lang continues to lose. He gets caught in Abrams and Toni's mind games, falling for the old "I'm going to Las Vegas where I shouldn't gamble but I will. Don't not not not not not not sleep with my wife" trick. Abrams doesn't go to Vegas, Toni doesn't sleep with Lang, but everyone is still fucked. Knowing that his time is up in the Abrams Compound, Brandon flips a coin twice for his Super [Bowl] XXXX picks. New York beats Kansas City, Abrams and Toni fight and make up, and Brandon Lang, finally free of the John Anthony inside of him, pursues the far less controversial life path of, um, teaching children how to play tackle football. Matthew McConaughey literally coaches the Little Giants at the end of Two For The Money, setting up for the dark, gritty reboot of the 1994 children's classic. Sometimes, you gotta go back, in order to move forward.
Two For The Money hits a lot of my sweet spots, and panders to my pleasure centers especially egregiously with the use of USFL stock footage as a match for the pro and college action. For instance, the footage of LA Express quarterback Steve Young throwing a ball behind his back is displayed for all the world to see, years before Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL? would air. The world of Two For The Money is a strange amalgam of secondary nicknames for NFL teams, USFL video, a dash of arena football footage, and, near the end, actual real-life fake football footage, used for the conference championships and, um, "Super XXXX".
There indeed is a Brandon Lang, and he really is one of the more notable touts in Las Vegas. The real Lang's football dreams were cut short in high school, and after a stint in the Navy and traveling around the world, he wound up in Las Vegas, where he would eventually be part of a sports betting service in the late 1980's and early 90's. He got out, became a golf caddy to the stars, and eventually told his story to screenwriter Dan Gilroy, who turned it into Two For The Money. Needless to say, Lang got back into the tout business, with his setup looking a lot like the one Walter Abrams has in the movie. This is all just a long way of saying thank God the life of sports betting expert and 2008 Libertarian Vice Presidential candidate Wayne Allyn Root was never turned into a movie.
The performances in Two For The Money add at least a full star to what is otherwise have been a listless movie full of unappealing people. Al Pacino knows this material works best as comedy and treats it as such, while McConaughey walks the fine line between laid back and lazy, oscillating between Weirdly Mystical Future Luxury Car Spokesperson and mere mellow yuppie. Rene Russo is great as Toni, the glue barely holding the toothpick bridge that is Walter Abrams together. There's the sense that this role was written specifically for Russo, which might even be true given that she is married to Gilroy.
Jeremy Piven, whose hairline bet with the spread and won, plays the guy McConaughey will easily pass by on the bookmaking ladder. I like to think Assante was on the fence about playing Mr. Novian, then was told he'd get to pee on Matthew McConaughey, and was like You got yourselves a Mr. Novian!
Two For The Money feels like a dry run for Dan Gilroy, who wrote the screenplay and, nearly a decade later, would debut as a director with the intensely unsettling instant classic Nightcrawler. Both Nightcrawler and Two For The Money are about ambitious, yet directionless young men who find a niche industry and go all in while creepily trying to seduce Rene Russo. Two For The Money has the burden of being very loosely inspired by a true story, and centering around two compelling characters. Once Gilroy focused on only one main character—and made him the psychopathic embodiment of American late-stage capitalism—he was able to create one of the great movies of the decade in Nightcrawler. D.J. Caruso does a decent job directing Two For The Money, but it's harder to say with a serious face that this was a dry run for Disturbia and Eagle Eye.
Two For The Money may be far from perfect, but it is deserves more love than the mere indifference it receives, and is more memorable than its quick trip to discount-bin oblivion would suggest. Its mistakes are deliberate choices, by the actors and the filmmakers, and they prevent Two For The Money from being boring. There may be more interesting movies about gambling than Two For The Money, but (wait for it) I wouldn't bet on it. Feel free to kick me out of your Super Bowl pool for that one.