Working it for all it’s got

Times Staff Writer

“Two for the Money” is a poor man’s “Wall Street,” seemingly shot through a sock and set to a soundtrack that alternates between “Rocky"-style champ rock, waka-waka porn music and the theme to “Monday Night Football.” Not that any of this should stop you from seeing it, if you’re into that sort of thing. Even if you’re not, you have to admire a movie as enthusiastically and unrepentantly cheesy as this -- especially when it stars Matthew McConaughey as a former college football player so clean-living he can’t say the “F” word, and screamin’ Al Pacino as the gambling-addicted football oddsmaker and cable sage who lures him into a life of snake-oil sales pitches, $1,000 suits and prepaid hookers.

Of course, I say this as someone who didn’t have to pay to see the film, so you may want to think it over before you do. Directed by D.J. Caruso and written by Dan Gilroy, “Two for the Money” is pure, unself-conscious macho camp, but it’s not like Pacino and McConaughey don’t know it. They’re pitching tents and romping around in the grass like Jerry Maguire on steroids.

McConaughey plays Brandon Lang, a star quarterback whose football injury leaves him languishing in a dead-end job making 1-900 recordings. Brandon has a knack for picking winners, however, and an unexpected call from Walter Abrams (Pacino) lands him a first-class ticket to New York and a job on the trading floor of Walter’s sports-tip empire.


Soon, Brandon is happily submitting to an extreme makeover that includes a name change -- to John Anthony -- and some serious hands-on coaching in how to “sell certainty in an uncertain world.”

His ascent to the rarefied world of cocky hucksterdom is punctuated by steamy -- no really, I think they pumped it in -- shirtless workout sessions.

Walter, depending on one’s view, is either larger than life or an insufferable blowhard, whose heart condition doesn’t keep him from smoking, bellowing at the top of his lungs in close quarters, or impersonating a pony for his 6-year-old daughter.

Waxing rhapsodic to his sexy martinet of a wife, Toni (Rene Russo, who also executive-produced), about how much the boy reminds him of himself as a young man, it seems for a while as if Walter is grooming Brandon/John to succeed him in life as well as in business. That is, until he starts auditioning for the role of his father. Walter encourages Brandon/John to think of himself as his son, then humiliates him when he gets too comfortable.

Toni’s the picture of tough-love devotion and husband-management, and her main role in life is keeping Walter on the straight and narrow. Although how a woman who screens her husband’s potential employees -- because “he has to be careful who he lets into his life” -- is OK with his line of work is never explained.

It doesn’t matter, though, because by the time you get around to wondering, the movie has dissipated into a tangled mess of loose ends. Walter’s love gives way to fits of jealousy, sudden cruelty, bizarre tests of loyalty -- all of which confuse the issue of just what it is that Walter is after, especially after Brandon/John’s hot streak cools.

“Two for the Money” takes its cues from classic rise/demise stories of fresh-faced young men and their amoral mentors, but it stops short of making a point. Not even Brandon/John’s brutal assault at the hands of the world’s biggest high roller, or a desperate call from a loyal dry cleaner for whom all garment- and laundry-related gambling cliches have come to pass, seem to motivate Brandon/John’s change of heart. What gets him is the feeling that he’s lost touch with who he really is. Which I guess ranks up there with union-busting in the Dr. Phil era.


‘Two for the Money’

MPAA rating: R for pervasive language, a scene of sexuality and a violent act

Times guidelines: Coarse language, nudity and adult themes

A Morgan Creek production. Directed by D.J. Caruso. Screenplay by Dan Gilroy. Producer Jay Cohen. Director of photography Conrad W. Hall. Production designer Tom Southwell. Editor Glen Scantlebury. Costume designer Marie-Sylvie Deveau. Music Christophe Beck. Running Time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.

In general release.