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Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Updated: October 13, 1:56 PM ET
Gambling with Al & Matt

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Honestly? I'm disappointed.

The previews for "Two For the Money" looked awful. The premise sounded awful. The reviews, for the most part, were awful. The first weekend's box office (a paltry $8.4 million) wasn't just awful, it practically guaranteed that the movie would be showing on Delta and United within four weeks. Heck, even the title was awful. Two For The Money? What does that even mean? You could almost imagine the studio execs wracking their brains eight weeks before the movie premiered:

Exec No. 1: Hey, we need a title for that Pacino-McConaughey movie.

Exec No. 2: We still don't have one? I thought it was gonna be "Chasing The Vig"?

Exec No. 1: No, no, that's out -- the average person doesn't know what a vig is. We're leaning towards "Hot Streak" or "Laying Wood."

Exec No. 2: I don't know … those sound like porn titles.

Exec No. 1: Yeah, you're right. What about "Two For the Money?"

Exec No. 2: It's generic, it's uninspiring, it makes no sense whatsoever -- I love it!

Al Pacino, Matthew McConaughey
Do you slick back your hair and shout? Well then your qualified to handicap sporting events.
And that wasn't the only way the studio blew this movie. Here's a movie clearly targeted toward males between the ages of 18 and 40 who enjoy wagering on sporting events … and they decided to release it on Columbus Day Weekend? The same three-day weekend that included an entire college football slate, an entire NFL slate, the first round of the baseball playoffs and the return weekend of a long-lost professional sport we once called "hockey"? Seriously, how stupid was that? If there was ever a weekend for sports fans not to go to the movies, last weekend was it.

So the movie was destined to bomb, and I was prepared to gleefully skewer it, which would have been fine except for one itsy-bitsy little thing …

It's actually not that bad.

Look, I don't want to be blurbed for a movie poster or commercial -- if only because they desperately need a positive blurb and I think Earl Dittman has been kidnapped -- so here's my carefully written one-sentence take: Not only is "Two For The Money" surprisingly un-gawd-awful, I found myself feeling the opposite of mildly unentertained for a prolonged period of time that nearly coincided with the end of the movie.

(Did that make sense? I hope so.)

Before we delve into the movie, a confession: I missed the first five minutes for reasons beyond my control. On Monday morning, I drove down to The Grove (a sprawling outdoor mall in West Hollywood) for a 10:40 matinee, timing my arrival 10-12 minutes late to miss the onslaught of commercials and bad trailers. I wasn't counting on one of the weirdest phenomenons of modern times -- the unexpectedly large line of mothers buying tickets for this week's Mommy Movie.

What's the Mommy Movie, you ask? Every Monday at 11:00 a.m., the Grove's giant theater complex features a female-friendly movie (translation: chick flick) and 200-250 mothers attending the movie with their babies and young toddlers. Everyone parks their strollers outside the theater, almost like motorcyclers parking their Harleys outside a Johnny Rockets, then haul their kids inside to watch the movie. To drown out the sound of 150-200 screaming kids, they turn the volume in that specific theater up to Mile High Stadium-level proportions. And the Moms happily sit there breast-feeding their babies and watching the flick.

Why do I know this, you ask? Because the Sports Gal and her friend, Melissa, are frequent patrons of the Mommy Movie (or as I like to call it, "MILF Mondays"). One time I peeked my head in the theater during a Mommy Movie -- the conditions were so startling and disturbing, I kept expecting to see Tucker Carlson angrily running around with a microphone and snapping at ushers. Shirtless kids running around, babies yelping, exposed breasts everywhere … and in the middle of this chaos, 200-250 females calmly watching a chick flick at 600,000 decibels. If you're looking for the exact opposite of a sports book in Vegas, this is it.

Anyway, the line for MILF Monday made me miss the first five minutes of "Two For The Money," but it was pretty easy to figure out -- Matthew McConaghey (in full-fledged "All right, all right, all right!" mode) plays Brandon Lane, a former Division I QB-turned-handicapper recruited by Al Pacino as the new star of Pacino's sports advisor syndicate. What unfolds is an unabashed cross between "The Devil's Advocate" and "Wall Street" -- Pacino as the grizzled mentor, McConaghey as the red-hot protege who goes 80 percent on his picks every week, and if you don't know where this movie is headed from Minute One, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Maybe I've seen too many of these movies, but it's gotten to the point where I can predict everything before it happens -- I'm like Tom Brady checking off a crummy defense at the line. Hey, there's Jamie King, this whole dinner scene feels fishy, I bet she's a hooker. Oh, boy, McConaughey just leased a Mercedes, we're about 10 minutes away from the wheels coming off his football picks. Uh-oh, there's Armand Assante as a mobster, I bet he's going to be an unsatisfied customer who pulls out a gun soon. And so on. By the time the ending rolled around, I was disappointed not to nail the exact details of the final scene -- I thought for sure it would be McConaughey driving his Mercedes away from Manhattan like the end of "Good Will Hunting." Whatever.

So what kept my interest for two hours? Seven things …

1. It's a movie about sports gambling.

And there's something to be said for that. Can you really go wrong with a sports gambling movie? What chain of events needs to happen to screw this up? Watching McConaghey's hot football streak in the first hour, I started to get the shakes like Doc Gooden watching the last hour of "Scarface."

(That reminds me, one of my goals in life is to write a TV show or a movie where someone gambles recklessly on sports, keeps winning, keeps winning … and that's all that happens. There's never the stereotypical "Uh-oh, he's getting a little too confident, I can feel trouble coming around the corner!" moment, which in this movie, happens as soon as McConaughey slicks back his hair, leases that SLK 55 and starts making his NFL picks on Tuesdays. Trouble, trouble, trouble.)

2. It's a movie with the gall to make sports advisor syndicates look like they're on the level.

Jeremy Piven
If you're seeing this movie for Piven -- don't. Just watch "Entourage".
You have to respect the testicular fortitude of any movie that asks its audience to make the following leap of faith: There's a group of sports betting advisors out there that isn't devoted to completely ripping off its customers. I know someone who knows someone who's involved with one of these things, and they use all kinds of nefarious ploys to rope customers in -- with my favorite being the one where they call 100 former clients, guarantee them a free winning pick from the Monday Night game, then give 50 of them Team A and 50 of them Team B. The next week, they pull the same trick with the remaining 50 "winners" -- 25 get Team A, 25 get Team B. So after two weeks, 25 of those calls are guaranteed to have two straight winners. For Week 3, those remaining 25 now have to pay for the pick … and they usually do. These are the ploys you won't see in "Two For the Money."

(Then again, "Rounders" managed to make the seedy poker world seem somewhat glamorous and enticing. As usual, I have no point.)

3. Al Pacino throwing himself into one of those "Beverly D'Angelo increased my child support for the twins again, I need a big-money project right now, I don't care what it is, just find me something!" roles.

Unlike DeNiro, Pacino had some success not selling out since "Heat," although he hasn't appeared in a memorable movie since "The Insider" or had a memorable scene in a movie since his pregame speech at the end of "Any Given Sunday" (one of the all-time underrated chill scenes in any sports movie). Once one of the greatest actors alive, he turned into the "Scent of a Woman guy" about 12 years ago -- hoo hah! -- and plays that same guy in every movie (only with varying facial hair). But he's still Pacino. It's like having Bill Parcells coaching your football team -- maybe he's not the same Parcells anymore, but he looks the same, and it's always fun to see Pacino standing there, even as he slowly turns into Richard Lewis

(By the way, can you think of another actor with a career quite like Pacino's career, where the guy from 1972-1983 (Godfather 1 and 2, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Cruising, And Justice For All, Scarface) seems like a completely different human being than the one from 1992-2005 (Scent of a Woman, Heat, Donnie Brasco, Insomnia, Devil's Advocate, The Recruit). I'm not even talking about different actors; I'm talking about different human beings. Like how Pittsburgh Barry Bonds and San Fran Barry Bonds seem like two different people, right?)

4. You have to love any football movie where the NFL won't give them the licensing rights, so they have to make up fake logos and fake uniforms for the teams and stage fake football scenes.

Sorry, that's just a personal thing with me. Remember HBO's football series "First and Ten," when they bought the old USFL reruns and kept showing the same 10 L.A. Express touchdowns for like eight seasons of shows? That always killed me. And speaking of killing me, O.J. Simpson was on that show -- how can ESPN Classic not be rerunning those episodes? So we can buy the rights to "Arliss," a show that everyone agrees was the worst sports TV show of all time, but we can't buy "First and Ten" reruns? Come on. O.J., Ogre from "Revenge of the Nerds," a skinny Delta Burke and USFL footage on the same show? And this isn't on ESPN Classic? Are you kidding me?

One more note on this: In the climactic scene of "Money," they call the Super Bowl "Super Bowl XXXX" instead of "Super Bowl XL" to avoid a potential trademark suit with the NFL. High comedy. I love when the NFL gets all holier than thou about this stuff -- "Oh, no, we can't allow a movie to associate gambling with the NFL, that's totally unacceptable!" -- and yet they don't make a fuss about betting lines and columns running in papers and Web sites every week, and Cleveland gets fined because they didn't provide accurate information on Braylon Edwards' injury on last week's injury report (like anyone cares about an injury report other than gamblers). Oh, and let's not forget that Paul Tagliabue banned commercials for this movie during last weekend's NFL games. Gimme a break. This is a whole other column that will absolutely end up with me getting electroshocked by my editors to the point that foam comes out of my mouth. Let's just move on.

5. It's about time someone parodied those crazy sports betting infomercials.

Back in the mid-'90s, my old roommate Geoff and I would wake up every Saturday morning to watch the "Sports Advisors" with Jack Price and Stu Feiner, one of the 10 funniest TV shows of all time. The highlight was always Price standing outside a picture of the Mirage and screaming, "Guys, I'm in Vegas right now and I am absolutely locked into another winning week!!!!!" -- even though you knew he was standing in front of a green screen in some sleazy studio in Jersey. The other highlight was Stu hollering into the camera, "It seems like I win every week … and I do!" Neither of those scenes ever got old. So we would watch the show, mull over everyone's picks, then head over to Dunkin Donuts and discuss the lines for the next hour. Ah, the good old days.

Anyway, Pacino's service is a parody of that show, right down to the cleverly executed fake informercials with screaming handicappers (including Jeremy Piven, who's officially playing any of his movie character exactly like Ari from "Entourage"). I thought this parody portion was well-done, although they should have had Piven standing in front of a green screen of the Mirage and claiming he was in Vegas (an easy joke that would have worked). Still, my favorite part of the movie.

6. Seeing Rene Russo dramatically seize the "Oh, no, for the love of God what happened to her?" torch from Meg Ryan and Madeleine Stowe.

Strangely, I had just watched Major League like two weeks before, so I was still in full-fledged, "Man, there wasn't a cuter, more underrated, more attainably hot actress in the last 20 years than Rene Russo" mode. But that's been one of the goofy outcomes of the Botox Era -- you never know when one of your favorite actresses suddenly decided to, um, take the car in for repairs. Just be prepared. Someone three rows in front of me gasped out loud during her first scene. I'm not making this up. Think Jeanne Zelasko crossed with David Gest.

7. All right, I'll ask: Is there anyone who doesn't like Matthew McConaughey?

Rene Russo
Hey, Jay Leno ... if you're looking for your chin it appears that Rene has it.
Why do I root for him in every movie? Is it the whole Wooderson/Dazed and Confused thing? Wasn't he superb in "A Time to Kill" or am I crazy? Doesn't it feel like his career should have been better? I think I've written this before, but he's the Jimmy Jackson of Hollywood -- there's no real reason why his career shouldn't have turned out better, but it didn't, and now he's stuck making chick flicks and B-minus movies and wondering where the wheels came off. Maybe his biggest problem is that he's a likable presence and a solid actor to boot … but he's not a great actor, and he always plays himself, and you can't really make fun of him, either. So what's left?

In retrospect, the perfect choice for the lead would have been Keanu Reeves -- impossible because this was already a "Devil's Advocate" ripoff, but bear with me -- because Keanu would have done Keanu things, provided some sorely needed unintentional comedy and made the movie infinitely more ridiculous and improbable with his mere presence. Without Keanu, and with McConaughey and Pacino aboard, there was an inherent pressure for the movie to succeed and have a worthwhile point. Were there flashes of that potential? Absolutely. But when "Rounders" ended, you knew that Mike McD wasn't destined to be a lawyer, that poker was in his blood, that he needed to go to Vegas to take his chance. When "Money" ended, I wasn't sure what I learned, other than that you shouldn't slick back your hair and buy a Mercedes if you're a betting advisor on a hot streak.

Sans Keanu, "Money" wasn't quite polished/creative/inspiring enough for the obligatory "All right, go see this thing" stamp of approval, but it wasn't cheesy/funny/ridiculous enough for the obligatory "When this thing is available on DVD, rent it with your buddies and pull the MST 3000 routine on it for two hours" stamp of approval, either. It's smack dab in the middle -- kind of worth seeing, but not really.

(Hold onto your seats! Predictable ending with a gambling pun coming up in four … three … two … one … )

In other words, "Two For The Money" ended up being a push.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available right now on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.