Is it a sly remake of "The Gambler" (1974), which is the obvious antecedent? Or is it a poor imitation of David Mamet in his "Glengarry Glen Ross" mode, which includes the casting of that movie's full-throttle star, Al Pacino, who co-stars here with Matthew McConaughey and Rene Russo? Or is this some misguided stab at analyzing the human "defect" that turns obsessional sports gambling into a $200 billion annual business?
Writer Dan Gilroy ("Freejack") and director D.J. Caruso ("Taking Lives") are clearly fascinated by this milieu. Yet despite characters, situations and a music score that attempts to push every scene to the extreme, they don't make their fascination our fascination. The characters become increasingly remote as their behavior thrusts viewers further and further away from the story. The odds are that this overheated but undercooked film will puzzle or annoy too many viewers, even sports obsessed males, to sustain a long theatrical run.
The movie first offers up three implausible but not wholly impossible characters. McConaughey plays a washed-up ex-jock with a bum knee who still thinks he has a shot at becoming an NFL quarterback. He supports himself between workouts as a phone operator in a Las Vegas 900-number racket, where his true talent emerges: He has an uncanny knack for picking about 80% of the winners of each weekend's football games.
This talent is spotted in faraway New York by Walter Abrams (Pacino), a recovered gambling addict who now exploits -- teases? -- his addiction as the host of a TV and telephone sports adviser for bettors. His wife, Toni (Russo), an ex-junkie, spends her days managing her off-the-wall husband and running a beauty parlor.
Walter recruits Brandon, moves him to the Big Apple and installs him downstairs in his brownstone, no less. Walter then recasts his empire around this Whiz Kid. He even shoves aside a computer geek (Jeremy Piven), whose spreadsheets actually achieve a success ratio comparable to Brandon's.
He renames his protege John Anthony, supplies him with a car and the occasional call girl and is rewarded one weekend when Brandon -- sorry, Anthony -- guesses right on every game. Ah, but the Gambling Gods are fickle, as we all know, so the fall is coming soon enough.
Predictability isn't the real problem though. Rather it's the filmmakers' inability, unlike Mamet and very few others, to make unsavory characters and raw, kitchen-sink psychology work in dramatic terms. A viewer must wonder who or what he is to root for among these symbiotic characters who prey upon each others' weaknesses.
The film's sledgehammer approach to drama is deeply wearying. When Brandon first arrives in New York and his driver pulls up in front of Walter's brownstone, the soundtrack plays Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman". Then Pacino, in a performance just south of "Scarface", is egged on by his director -- as if he needs much prodding -- to push each scene into crazed, self-destructive obsession, snapping at Brandon's heels and slapping cigarettes in his mouth despite a weakened heart and constant chest pains.
McConaughey has effective moments as a lamb led to the slaughter who is too busy admiring his wonderful, fluffy coat. He is the film's one character that had genuine potential. On the other hand, Russo's Toni is an amalgam of so many cliches you wonder how the actress got any purchase on the material.
Armand Assante turns up for a couple of scenes as a Really Bad Dude with a weakness for gambling, but the character lacks a clear focus and the physical threat he seems to represent vanishes soon enough.
The filmmakers know the world of sports betting but not sports itself. More specifically, no losing football coach at any level, much less the NFL, would instruct his team to throw a Hail Mary pass on the last play of the game to beat the point spread!
Conrad W. Hall gives the film a dark, moody atmosphere amid Tom Southwell's sets all too successfully depress or alienate. The Christophe Beck score assumes a silent moment is a wasted opportunity.
TWO FOR THE MONEY
A Morgan Creek production
Director: D.J. Caruso
Screenwriter: Dan Gilroy
Producer: James G. Robinson, Jay Cohen
Executive producers: Dan Gilroy, Rene Russo, Guy McElwaine, David C. Robinson
Director of photography: Conrad W. Hall
Production designer: Tom Southwell
Music: Christophe Beck
Co-producer: Wayne Morris
Costumes: Marie-Sylvie Deveau
Editor: Glen Scantlebury
Walter: Al Pacino
Brandon: Matthew McConaughey
Toni: Rene Russo
Novian: Armand Assante
Jerry: Jeremy Piven
Alexandria: Jamie King
Southie: Kevin Chapman
Reggie: Ralph Garman
MPAA rating: R
Running time -- 123 minutes