On the other side of the socioeconomic scrimmage line is Brandon Lang (Matthew McConaughey). A college football standout whose career ended after a leg injury, Lang is reduced to working for a skeevy Vegas-based sports 900-line with dingy offices lifted from "Joe vs. the Volcano." But Lang has an uncanny knack for picking the winners of football games, which attracts Walter's attention. Waving his magic wand of upward mobility above Brandon's lower-middle class head, Walter flies his new protégé to New York, cleans him up and rechristens him John Anthony, picker of winners, maker of kings. Brandon's near-psychic abilities make himself and Walter rich, and soon Walter is treating him like the son he never had. But when Brandon loses his magic touch, Walter loses faith in his creation.
"Two for the Money" combines the father-son dynamic of "Wall Street" with the manly-man vocational toiling of "Boiler Room." But director D.J. Caruso, core audience in the crosshairs, fetishizes the boys and their toys without commenting on their behavior or extracting any larger societal meaning from it. Is Walter a manipulative enabler of gambling addicts or a worthy recipient of capitalism's rewards? If "Two for the Money" is a parable, don't be surprised to find yourself rooting for evil, which looks like so much beer-infused fun. Indeed, after the deliciously wicked scene in which Walter passes out business cards at a Gambler's Anonymous meeting, we start believing that the thrill of living on the edge is actually worth the inevitable downfall.
Screenwriter Dan Gilroy pokes around the edges of his characters, but intriguing bits are fuzzily realized. When Brandon starts losing, he and Walter play a manipulation game that ambles around trying to find its point. Also needing sharper focus is Walter's marriage to Toni (Rene Russo). She's a former junkie in charge of keeping Walter's excesses at bay. But with Walter fixated on Brandon's eclipsing of his master, she becomes the fulcrum keeping both men from destroying each other. But a fulcrum is not a movie character and the always enjoyable Russo struggles to make Toni an independent creation.
Pacino fans worried about the fate of the surrounding scenery, fear not: The Oscar winner keeps his flamboyance at acceptable levels, although he taps liberally into his kegfull of mannerisms. McConaughey is a good actor, but this film just furthers the notion that his career is always circling the runway, never coming in for a landing. Whether in rags or enjoying his riches, he's a supremely handsome man, so his transformation here has no convincing physical manifestation. But watch out, ladies. With a topless Lang pumping iron in his office gym, the Beefcake Threat Level is always Elevated. And finally, like Brandon's multiple bench presses, the film is simply too repetitive. The fate of the world always seems to rest on the outcome of the big game. And after the umpteenth big game, we're long past caring. Starring Al Pacino, Matthew McConaughey and Rene Russo. Directed by D.J. Caruso. Written by Dan Gilroy. Produced by Jay Cohen. A Universal release. Drama. Rated R for pervasive language, a scene of sexuality and a violent act. Running time: 122 min