casThere are a lot of people today who don’t get what the big deal is about Al Pacino. I see it on the CHUD message boards all the time, kids who are familiar with the concept that Pacino is one of our great actors but not believing it because they just haven’t seen him being a good actor. Partially it’s their fault – I am increasingly horrified at the people who boast about having seen Episode III eleven times but not The Godfather even once – but it’s also partially a fair complaint. In recent years Pacino has been walking on set, shouting his lines, and cashing his paycheck. Granted, he’s not as bad as DeNiro has become, but the image we have of Pacino in this day and age is that hooting and hollering ham.

In reality, Pacino’s making a comeback as an actor with nuance and depth. Last year he was mostly fantastic as Shylock in the latest version of The Merchant of Venice. And he’s almost great in his newest film, Two For the Money. Unfortunately his performance is maybe the only good thing going on in this bore of a film.

Pacino plays the owner of a sports betting consultant firm. The film makes a pretty big deal about how the firm skirts the edges of being illegal – they don’t actually take bets, but they tell you how to bet. And then you pay them a cut of your winnings, apparently on the honor system. Pacino has a room full of phone men whose job it is to upsell desperate callers into bigger bets, and he hosts a public access TV show where he gives out his picks week after week.

He’s a charismatic and over the top guy, the kind of character that would be ideal for a full-on Pacino shoutfest. But Pacino pulls it back, and only nibbles on the scenery. He plays the character with a wounded interior, a vulnerability that shines through at all times. A vulnerability that may even be part of his charisma.

Pacino comes across a minor league sports betting consultant in Vegas who seems unstoppable – he picks 80% winners in college football. It’s Matthew McConaughey, who was a college ball player until a truly nasty broken leg ended his career. Pacino (I’m not even going to try to remember these character’s names) flies McConaughey to New York to be his new wonderboy.

At first you think there’s some sort of grift going on, a con of some sort, which McConaughey is going to have to figure out. But it quickly becomes obvious that not only is there no con, things will get worse than you could have imagined – McConaughey’s daddy was a dick, and Pacino is looking for someone to mentor. He’s actually looking for an heir, since he has an unspecified heart ailment which could, we are told again and again, kill him at any moment.

As the film drags on you realize that there’s not going to be some big switcheroo or reveal. This really is a boring movie about a guy with daddy issues, just set against the world of sports betting. There’s an element of questioning the morality of what the consultant firm is doing, but it’s all on the up and up, so there’s no real danger to it. None of the sports stuff feels real, so there isn’t even the thrill you got from Wall Street or Boiler Room where you learn about a new part of the world and revel in the nasty world of men.

Speaking of those two movies, Two For the Money is like the Lifetime Movie of the Week version of them. There’s no real hard edge to anything here – Armand Assante floats in and out of the film as a villainous type, and while I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the fact that he urinates on McConaughey, he’s really only a device to help that character remember how much he loves his family. The whole film feels like the script was rewritten after a weekend at one of those Iron John retreats (do they still have those? Is this one of those references that I will always make and it will always date me?)

Matthew McConaughey is notable for being one of the most naturally unlikable actors out there. There’s just something about his basic smug demeanor, which comes through in any role, that makes you root for the guy pissing on him. He’s not a bad actor, per se, in that it isn’t like he’s wooden or not delivering his lines correctly or whatever, but he’s one of those guys who seems like he can only play different variations on essentially fratboyish douchebags. This film is no different.

Renee Russo plays Pacino’s wife, who McConaughey may or may not have a thing for. Russo has a granite-like chin, thrusting out at all times, and is looking more and more like transvestite. I have to wonder what it is that’s attracting McConaughey to her. Considering that director DJ Caruso finds an extraordinary number of opportunities to get McConaughey out of his shirt and sweated up and working out (this is a movie about people who talk on the phone, mind you), there may be much to be made of rereading this text as gay.

It’s too bad that Two For the Money is so anemic. Pacino’s performance here certainly isn’t up with his best, but it’s closer to a return to form than I could have reasonably have hoped for. And considering that director DJ Caruso last directed the truly heinous Taking Lives, the fact that Two For the Money didn’t make me want to poke my eyes out of my head certainly must count as some sort of victory.

5.5 out of 10