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With: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Maury Chaykin, John Hurt
Written by: Maurice Chauvet, based on the book by Gary Stephen Ross
Directed by: Richard Kwietniowski
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexuality
Running Time: 104
Date: 01/23/2003

Owning Mahowny (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Gamble On

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the grand tradition of gambling films comes Owning Mahowny, withyet another superior performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

But this is no glitzy, romantic look at gambling, a la James Bond, Scorsese's Casino or Mike Hodges' Croupier. This is about gambling as a disease, as Hoffman's frantic nose-breathing at the craps table will attest.

Written by Maurice Chauvet and directed by Richard Kwietniowski (Love and Death on Long Island), Owning Mahowny doesn't quite rise to the Dostoevskian highs of Karel Reisz and James Toback's The Gambler (1974) or to the passionate gentleness of Jacques Demy's Bay of Angels (1963). Owning Mahowny is more clinical and climate-controlled; Hoffman is drawn to the glaring casinos with a single-mindedness that borders on queasy. He won't even accept a free prostitute from the management.

Within ten minutes, two secondary characters point out that Mahowny's (Hoffman) car and suit are pretty shabby and why doesn't he spring for a new one? He's a successful and savvy banker in charge of loans and he makes a good living.

It's just that he spends every last cent on gambling -- any kind of gambling: horses, basketball, craps, blackjack, roulette. He owes something like $40,000 to his bookie, Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin). His blonde, passive girlfriend Belinda (Minnie Driver) is the classic enabler, merely frowning as Hoffman feverishly flits off to Atlantic City on one of his gambling binges.

It's 1982, and Mahowny's gambling has taken a severe downturn. In order to keep up with his debts, he's begun to fabricate accounts and skim cash from some of his clients' loans. He loses over and over again, but a losing streak can't last forever. At one point Mahowny's stash rises to some $9 million and the manager (John Hurt) of his favorite casino suddenly becomes his best friend, offering him expansive rooms, private jets and free ribs and Coke.

Owning Mahowny's major downfall is its "based on a true story" pedigree, which effectively smothers the filmmakers. Whenever they have a chance to cut loose or truly go psychotic, they reel it in. They keep scenes in the movie that don't particularly make sense -- such as when Mahowny accepts a ride from a street hustler -- simply because they happened in real life.

Ironically, Hoffman's previous starring role in the very similar but fictional Love Liza cuts far closer to reality than this so-called "true story." In that film, Hoffman plays a man suffering from severe grief who goes on a glue-sniffing kick after his wife dies. Both movies are quiet and allow Hoffman to really shine, but Owning Mahowny holds back, offering him too studied and too limited a character.

Still, Hoffman is one of our greatest living actors and he's far too good to fall into a routine, keeping to a set of tics or a particular line delivery. He constantly mixes it up for himself and keeps us on our toes. He saves the film and takes the jackpot. A lesser actor would have blown it.

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