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'Owning Mahowny'

'Mahowny' gambles on the downbeat

Friday, August 08, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

My favorite line in W.C. Fields' "The Bank Dick" is when an unctuous con artist assures a loan officer, "I want to be honest in the worst way."

 
 

'OWNING MAHOWNY'

RATING: R for language and adult themes

STARRING: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Minnie Driver

DIRECTOR: Richard Kwietniowski

   
 

The title character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Owning Mahowny" might say the same -- except there's nothing comic about him. There's nothing really tragic about him, either. The only noteworthy thing about Dan Mahowny is that there's absolutely nothing noteworthy about him at all.

He is milder-mannered than Clark Kent in his job as an assistant manager in the loan department of a major Toronto bank. He's literally a fair-haired boy there -- his dishwater blond hair, pasty complexion and flabby body unhealthily reflective of the profession at which he excels.

Far more interesting than his day job, however, is the way Mahowny spends his nights and weekends -- betting away some $10 million he busily embezzles from the bank.

Director Richard Kwietniowski's bleak, black autopsy of a gambling addict is based on Gary Ross' best seller, "Stung," which in turn was based on a sensational true news story of the Reagan boom-bullish '80s. You couldn't ask for a better climate to up your credit limit then, with less security or oversight.

Ah, but what's intriguing about Mahowny is that he has no real interest in money -- no semblance of greed -- no drug, sex, fancy car or other high-lifestyle trappings to support. It's just the sheer thrill of the game itself that obsesses him.

Eager to facilitate that obsession are his bookie (Maury Chakin) and his Atlantic City casino host (John Hurt). Equally eager to curb it is his long-suffering girlfriend (Minnie Driver), who proves woefully inept at her task.

Driver, with her ill-placed trust and her ill-fitting wig, is pathetically appealing. Maury Chakin and John Hurt are nothing short of terrific as prototypically sleazy enablers par excellence.

Kwietniowski is obsessed with obsessions, so brilliantly evidenced in his 1997 debut film, "Love and Death on Long Island" (which also featured Hurt and Chaykin) -- the tale of a British mystery writer consumed by a fantasy relationship with a B-film actor. This time around, however, it's almost excruciating: The overall mood is beyond the valley of downbeat, to the point and nearly the pit of depression.

Hoffman ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Magnolia") saves the character study, if not the film. He's an excellent zombie as Mahowny, nervously pushing up too-large glasses on a too-small nose, while his casino losses mount precariously.

"I don't have a gambling problem," he says blandly, when confronted by Minnie or anybody else. "I have a financial problem."

You bet.


Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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