Brandon Lang is a college football phenom with a promising future—until a snapped leg during a bowl game redirects his path. Fast-forward six years: Brandon still harbors hopes of NFL glory, biding his time working in a 900-number phone center as a low-paid bookie.
Then, his dead-end life is interrupted by a phone call from the big league—but not the one he was expecting. A big-time football bookie from New York named Walt Abrams has noticed that Brandon consistently picks 80 percent of the winners in each weekend’s football contests. So he invites him to start earning real money by joining his team of so-called “sports associates,” people who suggest picks for bettors and then take a percentage of their winnings as payment. (A profession the film depicts as technically legal but morally murky.)
Walt takes Brandon under his wing, acting as the father Brandon never had. But all is not well. And no one knows it better than Walt’s longsuffering wife, Toni, who compensates for her husband’s obsessive, boundary-blurring dysfunction (such as monitoring virtually every area of Brandon’s life) and tries (mostly unsuccessfully) to help Brandon maintain some personal autonomy. Brandon, for his part, is at first too enamored by his mentor’s affection (not to mention his swank new office, Mercedes and apartment) to recognize just how overbearing and manipulative he really is.
The high-stakes game Walt and Brandon play goes through the roof when a Puerto Rican bettor named Mr. Novian calls and asks for their expertise. Novian is prepared to bet millions every week on pro games—and Walt and Brandon are eager to pocket their 10 percent fee if the bets he places are successful. Brandon’s perfect picks the next weekend rake in the cash. But the victory celebration is cut short when his skills head south and decimate the company’s fortunes the following week. The star that had risen so quickly burns out, exposing an ugly tangle of addiction, personal brokenness and lives tenuously knit together by false hopes and pretenses.
Two for the Money is a cautionary tale about the destructive, shape-shifting power of addiction. Walt appears to have it all—a beautiful wife, a successful business and enough bravado to power Manhattan. But in reality all he is is a small man with a monstrous monkey on his back.
Walt has allegedly kicked his gambling habit. He brags that he hasn’t gambled for 18 years, that he’s attended 936 consecutive Gamblers Anonymous meetings. But he has never gotten a grip on his addiction; it’s simply changed forms as he runs a bookie house that enables him to live vicariously through the exploits and failures of other addicts. Walt implies that he’s kicked alcoholism, too. But he’s merely replaced alcohol with nicotine, smoking constantly even though a heart condition often has him clutching his chest and talking about death.
These aren’t positive elements, per se. But it’s in Walt’s characterization—and how he affects those around them—that the movie presents its overarching statement about the power of addiction. He tells Brandon, “The best part of any drug is the moment right before you take it. That’s the greatest high in the world.” Poignant moments such as this one punctuate the script from start to finish, and they’re made all the more bittersweet by the growing realization that Walt is powerless to escape the grip of his vices.
When Brandon loses his edge and things begin to fall apart, Walt insists that his bad streak will come to an end and that they’ll come out ahead eventually. But Toni knows better, and she advises Brandon to get out. “You could win a hundred games in a row,” she tells him. “But it wouldn’t be enough. He will ride you into the ground. You have to go.” Eventually, she tells her husband, “You want to lose. Your fantasy is to end up alone and with nothing.” But she refuses to let him shove her away: “[I] love you more than you love yourself.” There’s definitely a codependent element in their marriage, but Toni’s unconditional commitment to her addict husband is admirable nonetheless.
Brandon’s character is slowly corrupted before he wakes up to what is happening. Unlike Walt, Brandon is not an addict to any external substance or vice (though he does work out compulsively). He dreams of financial success not only to supply his own needs, but to help his mom (a Las Vegas card dealer) and put his college-age brother, Denny, through school.
Where Brandon is susceptible, however, is in his deep need for affirmation—something his own father never offered and a void Walt promises to fill. Brandon is swept deep into Walt’s addictive cycles, yet eventually he disentangles himself from his tragically flawed employer’s destructive influence.
Walt asks Brandon if he believes in God, to which he replies affirmatively. After that, Walt refers several times to Brandon’s spiritual beliefs with mockery—and perhaps envy. Walt says sarcastically that Brandon has a “direct line to God” regarding the scores of upcoming games. On his TV show, he says, “Let’s go to the oracle—God’s gift,” referring to Brandon.
Toni is afraid for her husband’s health, but Walt brushes off her concerns, saying, “In biblical times, you’d just move in with my brother, Mortie, if I died.” Walt suggests to two overweight men that they “haven’t missed a meal since Christ died.” Brandon’s mother asks, “Where the h— is my lucky crucifix?”
Walt makes a $10,000 bet with Brandon in a restaurant that he can’t seduce a beautiful woman sitting with two men at a nearby table. Brandon takes the bet—successfully. An explicit sex scene includes breast nudity (the setting is dark and shadowy). Brandon later visits the woman again, only to discover that she slept with him only because Walt had paid her $5,000. Another time, Walt pays a prostitute to attend to Brandon, though he refuses her “services.”
Strippers, Viagra and male anatomy are referenced. A co-worker jumps on Brandon’s lap and kisses him to “encourage” him following a promotion from Walt. Toni usually wears cleavage-revealing shirts. And the camera makes sure to highlight Brandon’s ripped upper torso. Toni and Brandon share an illicit kiss—and possibly more.
Brandon’s last game as a college football star ends with his leg badly broken at an unnatural angle (think Joe Theisman). Mr. Novian (and his large henchman) ambush Brandon as he rides his bike through Central Park. The henchman violently hoists Brandon off his moving bike, and holds him as Mr. Novian threatens him, puts a gun to his head and eventually urinates on him when he’s unsatisfied with Brandon’s apology for a losing streak that cost Novian $30 million. Novian also threatens to harm Brandon’s mother and brother, telling the terrified bookie, “I know where you live.”
Screenwriter and director D.J. Caruso takes full advantage of the film’s R-rating to unleash a torrent of obscenity. The film’s characters, Walt in particular, are especially fond of the f-word, using it at least 65 times, including a couple of foul instances where it’s paired with God’s and Jesus’ names.
Walt is so fond of the f-word that he actually notices that Brandon won’t use it—and comments on it. Walt tells his team of phone salesmen that Brandon is averse to using the word, to which they say, predictably, “F— you.” Walt then takes Brandon to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting where he harangues participants and even hands out his business card—all for the sole purpose of provoking Brandon into using the f-word, which he does.
S-word variants crop up 30-plus times. Characters take God’s or Jesus’ name in vain about a dozen times, including a handful of uses of “g–d–n.” About 20 additional, milder vulgarities salt the movie’s dialogue.
Numerous scenes show people drinking beer or wine. Everyone in the office watches NFL playoff games and the Super Bowl together, resulting in lots of empty beer bottles on tables the next day. Walt smokes continuously, and he tries to hide his habit from his wife. Brandon doesn’t smoke at first, but takes to puffing regularly on cigars as an indication of his superstar status. Drinking and smoking are rarely the main focus of any given scene, though. Rather, the film implies that these are simply normal, everyday activities in the lives its characters.
Walt is a manipulator par excellence. Brandon and Toni are continually discovering the shocking lengths to which Walt will go in order to get them to do what he wants. In an airport, Walt fakes having a heart attack and repeatedly asks Brandon, “Do you love me?” After Brandon tells the older man he does, Walt tells him it was just a joke to see how he would respond. Several times, Walt implies that his wife should have an affair with Brandon, yet watches the pair like a jealous hawk whenever they interact.
[Spoiler Warning] Walt goes so far as to engineer a situation in which his wife and Brandon end up alone together, and then he watches them from a distance. When the maniacal manipulator then confronts his wife, Toni realizes that her husband has been waiting for her to fail all along—something akin to betting on which choices she will make amid a tempting setup. As part of that setup, Walt lets Toni believe he has begun gambling again. As a former drug addict, she is crushed by the thought that her husband has given in.
One of Brandon’s jobs is to convince bettors to up the ante as far as possible—and then some. When he accuses Walt of pushing too far, Walt retorts, “No such thing as too far”—an ethic that informs his life and slowly desensitizes Brandon’s approach to customers as well.
In a moment of anger and frustration, Brandon gives Toni a harrowing ride to work in his Mercedes, weaving recklessly in and out of traffic.
From a content-oriented perspective, the spread on Two for the Money is far too wide. But it’s too bad the filmmakers decided to go to such extremes, because they’ve done a forceful job (in other ways) of showing the injurious power of addiction. Al Pacino’s performance is riveting—and horrifying as you slowly realize just how damaged his character truly is. His insatiable longing for something to fill his emptiness brings him—and those close to him—to the brink of destruction.
Screenwriter Dan Gilroy commented on what he was trying to accomplish, saying, “You’d think degenerate gamblers would be addicted to the high of winning. But the more you talk with them, you find that many feel more alive when they’re losing. What they remember are the losses, not the wins.” Walt is one of those gamblers. For him, losing is the only experience left that generates any feeling at all. Again, Gilroy: “Walter’s got to feel that loss because that’s how he knows where he stands, who he is. It’s tied up in his identity. That’s what’s so scary and so misunderstood about addiction. That’s why I was drawn to this story and wanted to do it.”
And do it he did. With gusto. With obscenity. And with lust. Unflinching and thought-provoking? Yes. Emphatically yes. Valuable, constructive and needful? Don’t bet on it.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.