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Volume 5, Number 35

This Week's Reviews:  Owning Mahowny.

This Week's Omissions:  And Now... Ladies and Gentlemen, Jeepers Creepers 2, The Legend of Suriyothai.

Richard Kwietniowski

Philip Seymour Hoffman
Minnie Driver
John Hurt
Maury Chaykin
Ian Tracey

Release: 2 May 03

Owning Mahowny


Brian Molony was a mild mannered drone in one of Toronto’s largest banks, going about his day in unpretentious fashion, and failing to make a clear mark with anyone he ran into. At the same time, though, he was embezzling some $10 million (Canadian dollars) to help pay for his obsession in the only world he stood out in: gambling.

Based on Molony’s story, Owning Mahowny follows a similar man obsessed with the occasional win and continuous loses, carrying his work from Toronto bookies to small Atlantic City establishments to the huge Las Vegas amusement park casinos. One is reminded of the people that checker the income of Robert De Niro’s casino in the Martin Scorsese film Casino, none of whom are willing to admit that their playful attitude towards a game is feeding a monster built on destroying them.

Gambling is just barely a game for Mahowny, who comes into the casino more out of responsibility to his love than to the attraction of any jackpot. He’s here for the suspense of turning a few cards over and the magnitude -- like a high -- of both the huge win and the huge loss. His eyes barely leave the table during the loud excitement and disappointment of those who watch him dwindle away a stack of chips. It’s not unlike the way he works at the bank.

The draw of Owning Mahowny is this tragic character, perfectly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, the film feels forced during much of its action. While director Richard Kwietniowski is able to get a feel for the seedy venues Mahowny gambles at, none of this ever gels into anything more than a morality tale, and a forgettable one at that.

At times, it is insightful as to why some people gamble in heavy amounts, but other times it is just sloppily putting together segments of manic wagering without enough context or character interest to make it any more intriguing. The overall feeling is of a sermon on the table, something that I hadn’t the slightest interest to hear at times (and my feelings aren't built out of a disdain for such a feeling -- I don’t gamble with the exception of a nickel I once put in a New Orleans slot machine because it promised to have talking Clue characters).

He tries to make the audience care about Mahowny’s relationship to longtime fiancée Belinda (Driver; wearing the wig of a bad Cher-impersonating drag queen), but none of this ever works. By the third nagging session from her, one starts to imagine trips to Atlantic City was a way to get away from her momentary presence on the screen, much less getting away from an impending marriage. Part of it is probably in the casting of Minnie Driver, an acclaimed actress who seems to miss every beat in the characters she plays for my money. Especially when standing next to Philip Seymour Hoffman, finding his way again after Love Liza, she becomes little more than a distraction.

For real chemistry, the actor who can play with Hoffman splendidly is John Hurt as a seedy Atlantic City casino owner intent on keeping one of his biggest cash cows happy. The way he plays this smarmy role against Hoffman’s dejection is perfect. His is one of the best performances of the year.

At the same time, though, he reminds cineastes of Kwietniowski’s previous film, the spectacular Love and Death on Long Island. In that film, the subject was also obsession, but it was a much more personal, much deeper one: the image of a matinee idol (Jason Priestley) to an effete gay Englishman (Hurt). The subtlety of that film is rarely seen in Owning Mahowny, perhaps intentionally, perhaps a byproduct of the non-fiction story. Either way, it is a setback for one independent director I thought to be on the same promising road as Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher back in 1998.

©2003, David Perry,, 29 August 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry