It happens every so often that a movie appears, reviled by the critical thundering herd, the Rotten Tomatoes Marching Band, that has unique qualities beyond its obvious flaws. While it might not be entirely redeemed, a movie of this sort can deserve a second look.
Two for the Money falls into that category, a picture that was blasted into powdery dust last week, and will likely drop off the box office map in short order, which is a bit of a shame.
The movie is about a small-time Vegas fan-phone basement sweatshopper named Brandon (Matthew McConaughey), who'd been a local football hero but was permanently sidelined with a busted knee. When he starts touting sports odds, he hits a string of winners and gets recruited into a sports-advisor boiler room run by a New York hustler/gambling addict, Walter (Al Pacino), who is married to an ex-junkie, Toni (Rene Russo).
Boy picks winners, hits the big time, hits more winners, makes a lot of money for his clients and Walter, and then hits a brick wall. That part at least is very uncomplicated.
Beyond that, the movie is something of a thematic mess. It doesn't quite know where it wants to land: is it a movie about hubris; about what happens when a man lacks the character to handle his sudden success? Not really.
Is it about addiction and recovery, as Walter, Brandon's boss, falls off the betting wagon en route to a bottom he's obviously visited before and knows well? Partly.
It's also about the mentor/protege relationship between the two, very familiar ground for Pacino these days, as noted by several reviewers. But even that doesn't quite explain it.
At its heart, despite Pacino's scenery devouring, which is fun to watch, McConaughey's grayhound geniality, and all the sports wankery, the movie really belongs to Russo's Toni.
Although she's clearly the back-seat passenger in the picture, she's also the secret driver. In a wonderfully understated performance, Russo makes it clear that Toni is driven by the razor-edged understanding of how perilously close she knows she will always be to the abyss. In fact, all she has to do is watch Walter if she ever begins to doubt how easy it is to tumble. As smart and self-aware as Walter is, Toni is by far the wiser of the two.
"Ultimately, at the end, Rene's character tells the universal truth. And she's probably the most self-aware character in the picture," says director D.J. Caruso.
"What we wanted to say with Walter and Toni, is how self-aware you become when you've been through so much, when you've been a junkie or a compulsive gambler."
More than that, Toni's clear-eyed awareness of Walter's flaws actually fuels, rather than diminishes, her faith in their relationship. Toward the end, Walter fails a test that would have sent the usual movie wife out into the night, but in this case what it does is add a grace note to Toni, and to the film, that reaches beyond our expectations, delivering an ambiguous, adult quality to the film that few if any of the critics quite got. It doesn't entirely save the picture, but it does manage to go somewhere few movies have attempted to go. - Henry Cabot Beck
Mr. Beck straddles the coasts, contributing features on movies, music, books, comics and other cultural objects to the New York Daily News and many other publications.