Bemoaning Mahowny

If there was any life to this reality-based drama, the filmmakers seem to have missed it

Jun 11, 2003 at 4:00 am
The first question on the minds of most potential viewers of Owning Mahowny is probably something along the lines of "What's up with that spelling? Who spells 'Mahoney' with a 'w'?" Do the marketing people think we somehow won't get that it rhymes with "owning" if there isn't a 'w' in both words? (The film's based on a real guy named Brian Molony, who spells his name in perfectly respectable fashion.) Watch the film, however, and the spelling is finally explained as the shallowest of symbols -- it's an anagram of "How many?", which is a question a card dealer might ask a gambler. And Mahowny -- played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who's about twelve years older than Molony was at the time of this story -- is indeed a compulsive gambler. That's as deep as it's gonna get, folks.

If you're one of the few who got to see Love Liza earlier this year and you're in the mood for more of the same, Owning Mahowny is no gamble -- just another hour and a half of Hoffman moping and coping with a problem. In place of dead wife and gasoline fumes, substitute gambling, but without the excitement that usually accompanies games of chance. Hoffman developed a whole new fan following in 1999 and 2000 by demonstrating his versatility in such disparate roles as male nurse to Jason Robards (Magnolia), drag queen-cum-speech therapist (Flawless) and rock critic Lester Bangs (Almost Famous), but if he's not careful, he'll erase all that goodwill with generic sad-sack performances such as this one.

Hoffman's charisma, realistically, is somewhat unconventional. He's likable when he tries to be, but if he chooses to be a schlump (or is directed to be one), he's really not the kind of guy you want to watch in the lead role of a 107-minute film. Here he gives us little to go on as to why Dan Mahowny gambles. OK, so it's an addiction. But most addicts at least get high from time to time. Would it kill Hoffman to make it look as if he enjoys the card tables?

Then again, perhaps his look is part of the point. Bank manager Mahowny easily rips off his wealthy clients' accounts for gambling funds, precisely because no one would suspect such a pathetic figure of being slick enough to pull off such high-stakes scams. That kind of contrast could be interesting if we were to feel some of the thrill (or, at the very least, the tension) that such a scammer would surely get from pulling the wool over the eyes of trust-fund brats. The movie, though, doesn't seem to identify with Mahowny, and so we don't, either -- which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, except that there really isn't anyone else to root for.

The movie presents us with two moderately interesting supporting characters: a slimy casino owner played to the hilt by John Hurt, star of Mahowny director Richard Kwietniowski's debut film, Love and Death on Long Island; and a kitchen worker (Chris Collins of In Too Deep) promoted by Hurt after developing a rapport with Mahowny. Unfortunately, their performances don't get as much screen time as they should, and their energy so shows up the rest of the cast that scenes without Hurt and Collins fall extra flat. Love interest Minnie Driver, saddled with a hideous wig, chunky glasses and meticulous Canadian accent (like everyone else herein, she duly punches her "oots" and "aboots" and "all reets" and "pro-jects" on "shedule"), used to be more interesting than this, but no doubt the film seemed like a step up from the likes of High Heels and Low Lifes.

Molony's antics, as chronicled in Gary Ross' true-crime book Stung (out of print at press time but due to return shortly), took place in the early '80s in Toronto, but don't expect any kind of VH1 period-nostalgia kick. The settings are generic, and the characters all wear suits and conservative haircuts, which never betray a particular period (Hurt's hair vaguely resembles Ronald Reagan's, but that could be coincidence). New-wave songs and neon fashions may be beside the point, but if the aim was to encapsulate the financial excesses of the era, more era-specific details might have helped.

Mostly, though, the problem is that Hoffman seems to be going through the motions to play the sort of typecast role he used to do before his greater versatility became apparent to all. When we see him in a parked car breathing deeply as he psyches himself up to take a flight to Atlantic City, it's a good little bit of character business, but that's all it is -- it's easy to envision Kwietniowski behind the camera saying something like "Inhale. Inhale deeper. Say, 'Let's do it.' Inhale some more." The director worked wonders with Jason Priestley in Love and Death, so it's a shame he can't get more out of a substantially greater talent such as Hoffman. There could have been life in the material, but no one involved, save Hurt and Collins, seems to have taken the time to find it.