Two For the Money is one of those movies that doesn’t seem like a Universal film. Having covered the picture at an early screening and some press junkets, I was somewhat surprised to learn that a movie starring Al Pacino, Matthew McConaughey and Rene Russo was made for $20 million dollars. Somehow, that type of investment is seen is “lower budget” in today’s often inflated movie world. Yet, this film is very much of the independent variety. Like Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys, both of these movies could have been made with “smaller stars,” less time and less money, yet even being made on the “high end” they both fit perfectly into the independent world.

In this dissection of the human psyche and the gambling world, Matthew McConaughey plays Brandon Lang. A former football star who was injured, and turns to sports advising to make ends meet. He catches the attention of Walter Abrams (Al Pacino) and is whisked out to New York City to make “picks” for his company. Lang is also taken under the wing of Abrams’ wife Toni (Rene Russo), and soon begins his internal struggle with high stakes success. Everything starts of great and gets even better as Lang can’t miss with his football predictions. However, when his slide starts, it escalates fast and eventually snowballs effecting everyone around him. The relationships between Walter, Brandon and Toni eventually comes to something of a boiling point, but it doesn’t happen in a way we would expect. Director D.J. Caruso is to be commended because his movie is truly a character piece. There aren’t any special FX, it’s just the characters and their situations. This “we’re all we’ve got” mentality really serves this film well because these people are seeing themselves in each other. Where they were and where they are going.

While I think that Two For the Money is a somewhat flawed film, it mainly seems so because that’s how it’s characters are. This is innately a flawed story. When a character is taken from struggling to make money, to instant success, it would seem that he or she is being set up for a fall. This film is very cerebral. It’s psychological and it doesn’t beat you over the head with information. Gambling films work when they don’t try and help the viewer out too much. You don’t need to know much about football to enjoy this movie. Like life, you just need a general understanding that one team is going to win and another team is going to lose. And yet, somehow in doing that, both teams can learn from the experience. This is at the heart of Two For the Money. Brandon, Walter and Toni are people who have won and lost, yet they all seem to know that the most important aspect to all of this has been their life experiences. What they have learned and gleaned from the ups and downs of being alive.

D.J. Caruso is one of those directors who seems very interested in characters and human behavior. Rather than become a doctor and study this in a scientific sense, he has eschewed the magnifying glass for the camera lens and that is how he examines his subjects. In a day and age when movies seem to have more bravado than they do substance, it was refreshing to see a film that just let the characters breathe. Set amidst the world of high stakes gambling, Two For the Money takes you on an emotional roller coaster ride. While I felt that he could have done a bit more with the Novian character (Armand Assante), this movie wasn’t about the mafia and thankfully it didn’t fall into that trap of Brandon “getting one over” on the bad guys in the end. Novian, like the high stress world that Brandon has entered, is just a small part of everything that makes him realize how far he’s come from the purity of the game he once knew.

Two For the Money is a movie for anyone who has ever placed a bet, entered an “office pool,” or just known what it’s like to compete for something and win.

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