I liked this movie almost every time that Tom Cruise made it back in the eighties. While there are some superficial differences between Two for the Money and movies like Cocktail and The Color of Money, which defined the formula that defined the “Tom Cruise” movie during the eighties, the similarities outweigh them by a ton. You have Matthew McConaughey in the Tom Cruise role as the preternaturally talented newcomer and Al Pacino in the Tom Skerritt/Paul Newman role as the often world-weary mentor. Rene Russo fills out the field as the experienced older woman who will come between the two men, in the same mold as Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Color of Money. Pacino also seems to be channeling a little bit John Milton from The Devil’s Advocate.
As you can probably tell, I didn’t find much in the way of originality in this movie, just a formulaic story professionally executed. Brandon Lang (McConaughey) is a former college football star whose career was ruined by a knee injury. Several years later, he works in Vegas picking football games for a 900 line. When he starts hitting 9 out of 11 on any given weekend, Brandon attracts the attention of Walter Abrams (Pacino), the owner of a “sports consulting” business, which advises high-rolling bettors in exchange for a percentage of their winnings. Abrams seems like an unlikely candidate for this job, being a chain-smoking reformed gambling addict with a bad heart.
Walter recruits Brandon with a pitch that seems lifted from The Devil’s Advocate and, before long, the young prognosticator’s 10-for-12 weekends are moving him up the Abrams corporate ladder, until he has a new Mercedes and his own office on the floor that handles Walter’s biggest addicts, er, I mean clients. Walter brings him along to visit his biggest client yet, a ballistically wealthy Puerto Rican named Novian (Armand Assante) whose bets total in the millions every weekend.
As always happens in these Tom Cruise movies, the young buck starts to take his gift for granted and his talent turns to ash. 9-and-2 is inverted to 2-and-9 and the Abrams business starts bleeding money.
This movie seems to know a lot about the sports betting industry, more than it knows about the Roman numeral system, but doesn’t want to share it with us. The details of the business are kept at arms length. Also, the movie seems riddled with plot threads that never seem to pay off. Jeremy Piven could have been Val Kilmer to McConaughey’s Cruise if only they’d done something interesting with the character.
McConaughey is a solid actor when he’s not coasting through lame romantic comedies on looks and charisma alone. Here, he more than holds his own against Pacino, even if the older actor is himself coasting a bit. Fortunately, Pacino is always interesting and hasn’t fallen to the Meet the Fockers trap that has ensnared DeNiro. For her part, Rene Russo’s character, Toni Abrams, seems to have the deepest emotional core out of any of the three main people on screen, loving wife to a husband whose sole purpose in life seems to be to cause her worry.
With a plot which seems lifted from other movies and doesn’t seem to really pay off at the end, Two for the Money is a slick, glossy picture that wants you to think it’s a high roller, but it’s really just playing the two-dollar window.