Sunday, July 03, 2005

Owning Mahowny (2003)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Most of the people, and that includes heads of Hollywood studios, have difficulties in comprehending that some of the most spectacular disasters in history have their roots in things that are quite banal. One such real life example served as a basis for OWNING MAHOWNY, 2003 Canadian drama directed by Richard Kwietniowski.

Based on the book STUNG by Gary Roos, the films begins in early 1980s Toronto where Brian Mahowny (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) works as one of the top managers in prestigious Canadian bank. Mahowny has quickly risen through the ranks, enjoys great respect by bank's bosses and clients alike, but his success apparently didn't affect his lifestyle - he wears cheap suits, drives old automobile, lives in apartment with conspicous absence of furniture and dates rather unglamourous colleague Belinda (played by Minnie Driver). There is one passion in Mahowny's life - he likes to bet on horses and this is the reason why owes some 10,300 $ to local bookie Frank Perlin (played by Maury Chaykin). When Frank threatens not to take his bets any more, desperate Mahowny solves problem by manipulating bank's books. This solution, however, proves to be temporary and Mahowny tries to cover his wrongdoing by stealing even more money and traveling to Atlantic City where he hopes that he would win at the table. Large sums of money and Mahowny's impulsive behaviour catch attention of Victor Foss (played by John Hurt), casino manager who would do anything in order to please his new and mysterious client.

Although based on real events, OWNING MAHOWNY doesn't bother itself with a plot. The essence of the film is character study. Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the most dependable character actors and independent cinema icon, is wonderful in his portrayal of a generally decent man whose otherwise perfect life starts to disintegrate under the weight of gambling addiction. This process is presented through the series of banal and very predictable incidents, but Hoffman has managed to win audience's sympathies for his character, which results in some very powerful scenes. The most moving is the one happening in Atlantic City when the casino employees start to root for protagonist during one of his rare but spectacular winning streaks, hoping against the hope that Mahowny would quit.

Hoffman is strong, but not strong enough to carry film by himself, at least not when burdened by Maurice Chauvet's script. Simplistic plot is advanced through the series of predictable situation and characters that, compared with Mahowny, look one-dimensional. This leads to great waste of talent, especially in case of Minnie Driver, almost unrecognisable under the bad wig, or John Hurt whose character of sleazy casino manager looks simply cartoonish. Even more disappointing is the subplot about ambitious Canadian policeman (played by Ian Tracey) who discovers Mahowny's suspicious activities by accident. Those plot elements also point towards even bigger problem - the movie doesn't bother to explain why and how Mahowny became an addict and even more fascinating story about the aftermath of the affair is left out. Because of that OWNING MAHOWNY starts looking like second-tier television movie and what was fascinating character study becomes banal and unconvincing cautionary tale.

RATING: 5/10 (+)


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