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Owning Mahowny

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Owning Mahowny

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Minnie Driver
Director: Richard Kwietniowski
Rated: R
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: May 2003
Genre: Thriller

*Also starring: Roger Dunn, Sonja Smits, Ian Tracey, Jason Blicker, Chris Collins, John Hurt, Maury Chaykin, Makyla Smith, Matthew Ferguson

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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Everybody gambles. What's particularly complex, though, is not where people risk their cash or how much--but why. I was cured of gambling when I lost seven dollars in a round of rummy with my friends. I was just 12 years old and I don't even want to think of what seven dollars would be worth today, but since then the most I ever sent my money at risk was by putting 50 cents a week into the office sports pool (why? For the feeling of belonging, of course, and to show that I was into the manly game of football) and might put $2 on the favorite horseto show (why? Who knows?) In "Owning Mahowny," Richard Kwietniowski explores a couple of years in the actual case of a Toronto-based fellow who at one point won nine million dollars in an Atlantic City casino card game. What happened from that point should not be revealed here: let the viewers discover this detail from seeing the well-acted and at times gripping, suspenseful film. What can be stated, however, is the motivation for the high-stakes game, and it's not money, notwithstanding the titular hero's insistence that he has a financial problem and not a gambling sickness. He played at craps and cards and roulette wheels because, as he put things in a session with a psychoanalyst, on a scale of one to one hundred he would rate his feeling of being alive as one hundred. When he was not at the tables, his life was a twenty. Fair enough.

The risk-taker in question is not a James Bond sort of fellow who'd relish the attention he'd receive by strolling into a casino with dinner suit and martini but a self-effacing, private person who, when offered a complimentary steak dinner by the manager, stated he wanted only barbecued spare ribs without sauce. Kwietniowski's casting is perfection: no better person could play the shy albeit clever Mahowny than Philip Seymour Hoffman, who does looks not at all like a movie star. (The noted critic David Thomson states that in as the prep-school thug Freddie in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," he's "not sure there's been a better performance in recent yearsso nasty yet so vulnerable, such a cross of Mussolini and Billy Bunter.") Hoffman has been duly recognized here for his ability to appear at once "nasty and vulnerable." As Mahoney, he uses his job as assistant manager in a Toronto Bank (salary in 1980 a mere $22,000 Canadian) to embezzle his institution out of millions. He did this not by skimming pennies from thousands of accounts, something that any bank teller could probably dream of doing, but by an arrangement so complex that Alan Greenspan would have trouble understanding it.

Hoffman is joined by the excellent John Hurt in the role of Victor Foss, the manager of an Atlantic City Casino, performing as quite the opposite of his guise in the best movie of 1997, "Love and Death on Long Island," also by this director. Whereas Hurt's character on Long Island was an intellectual and author, clueless about the real world and believing that you could play a VHS tape in a microwave oven, here he's a saturnine man intrigued by Mahowny's compulsiveness, determined to take the man for a ride while at the same time feeling sorry for him each time he'd lose at the tables. Mahowny simply did not feel alive unless he risked tens of thousands of dollars a month, frequently using bookie Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin) to bet on sportsand not just on a team but on "all the home games" and "all the away games." Nor could one blame him for being less than ecstatic about his sweetheart, Belinda (Minnie Driver), though Ms. Driver looks fine in a blond wig that makes her almost presentable.

If you're in the mood for a light and airy movie about an embezzler, you'd go for "Catch Me If You Can." The opposite of Philip Seymour Hoffman's character there is that of Leonardo Di Caprio. For a film about gambling that has wit and class, go with Mike Hodges's 1999 film "Croupier"an original work about a young man (Clive Owen) whose goal is to be a published author, takes a job as a croupier in a London casino, and observes those around him as an author might be expected to do. For a film that combines gambling with embezzlement, the movie this year so far is "Owning Mahowny." The public fascination with the subject made Gary Ross's book on which this film is based a best seller for quite a few months. The movie version works not so much because of the intricacies of the plot but primarily by the interplay of Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Hurt: opponents from a purely market standpoint, all too human on a personal one.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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