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Guys And Dolls

The ladies one-up the men in competing films about heated rivalries



The late Rod Steiger spent his prime years delivering masterful performances before settling into knee-jerk hamminess for the remainder of his career. Likewise, Robert De Niro has a reputation as one of the premier actors of his generation, yet he hasn't broken a sweat onscreen in at least a decade. And then there's the case of Al Pacino.

Pacino has demonstrated that there's still some gas in the tank: Just marvel at his latter-day performances in Insomnia and Heat. But ever since he won that Oscar for the loathsome Scent of a Woman (still the worst con job ever to snag a Best Actor statue), Pacino has elected to "Hoo-ah!" his way through almost every subsequent role, bellowing at the heavens instead of playing to the auditorium. As a result, his performances resemble nothing so much as fast-food burgers: You may momentarily enjoy them, but really, they're not very good.

Pacino's back in full manic mode in Two for the Money, a malnourished morality tale not dissimilar in structure to the other Pacino vehicles in which he serves as a shady mentor to a hot young actor (The Devil's Advocate, Donnie Brasco, The Recruit, etc.). Here, he plays Walter Abrams, the head of a sports consulting firm who finds his protégé in Brandon Lang (Matthew McConaughey), a former college football star permanently sidelined by a leg injury. With a pro career out of the question, Brandon scrapes together a living at a small Las Vegas betting house, where he picks the winners of the upcoming weekend games.

Walter learns of Brandon's near-psychic ability to correctly handicap the gridiron match-ups and lures him to New York with a substantially better job offer. Under his new boss' tutelage -- and with Walter's sharp wife (Rene Russo) also offering expert advice -- Brandon becomes a raging success by providing gamblers with surefire tips. But personality conflicts between the two men threaten to drive both their careers into the ground.

The entertainment value in Two for the Money can be found in its incoherence and its ineptitude -- this movie is so ludicrous on so many fundamental levels (unexplained character motivations, clumsy scene transitions) that it almost crosses over into camp territory. Pacino has a lot of showboat moments that ultimately mean nothing, whether his character's faking a heart attack to illustrate that in business one can never go too far, or breathlessly comparing penis sizes to Hebrew Nationals (Hebrew National is a kosher meat company known for its sausages and hot dogs -- at least I think that's what Walter was alluding to).

Meanwhile, Armand Assante shows up in a small role as a menacing crime lord who places his trust in Brandon, only to lose millions when the latter's picks turn cold; he then exacts his revenge by, uh, urinating on him. A scary scene? Only when it comes to matters of hygiene.

Because the NFL wisely elected not to get involved with this daft production, the filmmakers had to make do with fictional teams from, among other places, New York, San Francisco and, yes, Carolina. But the football game recreations seen throughout the film rarely look convincing, more Marx Brothers (a la Horse Feathers) than Manning brothers.

Adopting the gambling parlance employed throughout the picture, I'd have to say that the over/under on Two for the Money is 20. That is to say, it cost over $20 million to produce but deserves to gross substantially under that figure.

BASED ON THE BEST-SELLING NOVEL by Jennifer Weiner, In Her Shoes is the sort of movie that gets instantly pigeonholed from the moment the first one-sheet is plastered in theater auditoriums. If the stereotypes are to be believed, schmaltz-loving women will grab their tissues and jam the aisles while Neanderthal males will roll their eyes and see what martial arts mayhem might be unfolding at the multiplex down the street. But In Her Shoes isn't designed for any of these people; instead, it should attract viewers who have little use for rigid societal labels and who anticipate a well-crafted blend of comedy and pathos. They won't be disappointed.

An initially acrid look at sibling rivalry, the picture stars Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette as Maggie and Rose, two sisters who have nothing in common except their shoe size. Maggie is the outgoing one, pinballing between men, jobs and other people's couches as she shuns adult responsibilities for endless partying. Rose is the introvert, wallowing in insecurity about her looks while devoting almost every waking hour to her job as a lawyer for a prestigious Philadelphia firm.

In this case, the ties that bind have been shredded down to a mere string, one which snaps when Maggie cruelly betrays Rose in an act of astonishing thoughtlessness. Banished by her older sister, Maggie heads to a Florida retirement community to meet Ella Hirsch (Shirley MacLaine), the grandmother she only recently learned she had. As Maggie spends time with Ella and her friends and even lands a job at the community hospital, she begins to discover her worth as someone capable of both accepting responsibility and bestowing compassion. As for Rose, she modifies her high-pressure lifestyle, lands an attentive boyfriend (a winning Mark Feuerstein) and begins to feel good about herself. The only thing standing in the way of complete bliss are her unsettled issues with Maggie.

It isn't hard to guess how this will all play out, but the pleasures rest in the journey more than the destination. Maggie undergoes radical changes as she seeks to better herself, and Diaz is up to the challenge of navigating her character's trek through uncharted emotions. She's in top form here, though she's matched every step of the way by the other featured players. Rose's dilemmas are even more stirring than Maggie's, and Collette is fearless in bringing every raw emotion right to the surface. As for MacLaine, her no-nonsense portrayal allows Ella to serve as a necessary counterpoint to her granddaughters, cutting through the girls' messy outlooks with the sharp steel edge of scrappy experience. Even when the movie surrounding her turns soft, MacLaine remains its pillar of strength: Espousing tough love at every turn, she provides In Her Shoes with its hard-won terms of endearment.

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