Owning Mahowny
review by Nicholas Schager, 2 May 2003

Phillip Seymour Hoffman might yet become the Gene Hackman of his generation. The actor certainly has The French Connection star’s versatility, able to exude smug narcissism and blustery arrogance as comfortably as he embodies raging alienation and introverted timidity. But one hopes that on his way to acting greatness, this riveting rotund performer continues to allow himself the freedom to indulge in the wide variety of characters his canon thus far includes – that the same actor could portray an ultra-creepy stalker in Todd Solondz’s Happiness and a humane bedside nurse in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia in less than a year’s time speaks to the actor’s elasticity. Hoffman slides easily enough from big-budget films (Red Dragon, Patch Adams) to more edgy independent material, and this delicate balancing act suits the actor like a glove. Yet in Happiness, as well as Anderson’s Boogie Nights and last year’s Love Liza, Hoffmann has displayed a willingness (and desire) to supplement his steady stream of mainstream blockbuster fare with films that allow him to play men whose stunted maturity and desperate, frequently repressed longings make them dangerously unstable. He’s an actor who frequently seems most at home not with a smile on his face – although his smile is one of cinema’s most refreshing – but with a disquietingly furrowed brow and tightly pursed lips.

This penchant for sad-sack losers continues with the actor’s latest effort, Richard Kwietniowski’s Owning Mahowny. As bland and calculating as the character Hoffman plays, the film recounts the true life saga of Dan Mahowny, a mild-mannered bank executive who, in 1980-1982 Toronto, stole millions of dollars from his place of employment in order to feed an insatiable gambling habit. Mahowny was a numbers whiz, but while one would assume that his professional success would translate well to the games of chance and skill offered by Atlantic City and Las Vegas, the bank superstar – we’re told early on that he’s the youngest executive in the firm’s history – was an awful gambler. Obsessed with taking the action on virtually any sporting activity around (from baseball and basketball to Canadian Football League games), Mahowny bet not for the pleasure of success or the thrill of monetary riches, but out of sheer compulsion. Watching him win (and, more often, lose) thousands of dollars per minute at a craps table, a look of stern, intractable determination glossing over any hint of excitement or disappointment on his face, is to see a man trapped in the throes of addiction.

In Hoffman’s hands, Mahowny is a cipher; while his pretty bank teller girlfriend Belinda refers to her beau as “wild man” early on, one quickly surmises the irony in such a comment. Mahowny is far from rowdy, and his foray into stealing money from large personal accounts in order to clear debts to bookie Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin) – while clearly irrational and born out of desperation – is nonetheless performed with the inexpressiveness of an automaton. The only time Hoffman allows the character to let loose with some feeling is during frenzied moments in which his wagers have turned sour and his franticly obsessive impulses rise up to the surface. Otherwise, however, it’s Hoffman the Great doing Hoffman the Familiar. No one expresses mundane turmoil the way Hoffman does, and yet one all-too-frequently gets the impression that the actor is on auto pilot throughout Owning Mahowny, capably but unenthusiastically handling a role that he could play in his sleep.

Maurice Chauvet’s screenplay (based on the book Stung by Gary Stephen Ross) takes its time with Mahowny’s story, detailing his dealings with Perlin, his failing romance with Belinda, and his unhealthy relationship with Atlantic City casino owner Victor Foss (John Hurt) – whose eyes light up with dollar signs every time Mahowny walks through his doors – with care and compassion. The film’s sympathy for Mahowny is subtly underscored by a refusal to glorify the man’s dubious accomplishments (which culminate in a theft of mind-boggling size and stupidity). When Mahowny neglects his girlfriend and houseguests to watch a college basketball game he’s placed big money on, the look of deflation that fills him during the contest’s final seconds is shot in close-up without mockery or condescension, but instead with a measure of resigned compassion.

Rather than compassion, however, what the film could really use is a swift kick in the pants. What begins as a small character study soon devolves into the kind of tediously predictable independent film that last year’s Love Liza all too unfortunately typified. One feels as though Kwietniowski (Love and Death on Long Island) has shot the film exactly as it was written, and the material leaps off the screen only to fall flat in the theater’s first aisle – there’s absolutely no momentum to this tale, no sense of surprise that might mislead us into believing that we don’t know how the story will ultimately end. Owning Mahowny might be about one man’s frightening (and true) spiral into the depths of gambling addiction, but his cinematic life story – despite the wily blankness of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance – is likely to make moviegoers feel that they’ve been swindled out of $10.

Directed by:
Richard Kwietniowski

Philip Seymour Hoffman
Minnie Driver
Maury Chaykin
John Hurt
Sonja Smits
Ian Tracey
Roger Dunn
Jason Blicker
Chris Collins
Makyla Smith

Written by:
Gary Stephen Ross
Maurice Chauvet

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult







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