Based on a true story set in the early 1980s, Hoffman plays Dan Mahowny, a middle manager at a Toronto bank who finds himself swamped by gambling debts. To square matters with Frank (Maury Chakin), a bookie with a snow globe fetish, he uses his job's authority to set up fake loans and cash transfers. Hoffman doesn't play Mahowny as outwardly desperate; sitting at his desk with a loan approval form he's about to fake, he sweats and stares, but he's committed to feeding his addiction. There's a gleam of opportunity in his eyes, and you can feel him thinking: X amount of dollars means Y hours at the blackjack table in Atlantic City. Little else matters, including moral qualms.
Of course, nobody expects bank fraud out of somebody as schlumpy as Mahowny, including his mousy girlfriend Belinda (Minnie Driver). His pasty thighs walk through a life that features his aging car, a bad mustache, and a receding hairline. It's hard to tell at first glance the difference between Dan the banker and Dan the high roller; there are no cliched scenes of him howling with joy after making a great run at the casino. All Dan gets out of gambling is focus. At the tables, Hoffman's eyes are rigid and intense; anywhere else, they shift wildly or just stare into space.
Problem is, Hoffman does his job almost too well. It's clear halfway through Owning Mahowny that nobody with a need so consuming - and suits so ill-fitting - is going to come within 50 miles of redemption. All that's left to see his how far Mahowny's compulsions are going to take him, which in this case is $10.4 million in bank fraud (a figure that's less impressive when you realize it's Canadian dollars).
As a director, Richard Kwietniowski likes slow movement and washed-out backgrounds. In his first feature, 1997's Love and Death on Long Island, he announced himself as the only director working in color who loves gray above all else, and he continues that approach here. That's sharp thinking when it comes to the casino scenes, which show Las Vegas and Atlantic City for what they are: Dreary halls with cheap chairs, cheap carpets, and cheap people losing their shirts. But everything else is flat and bleached out, and the rest of the cast winds up being underused and forced to stick with a handful of behavioral tics. Driver, in oversized glasses and a bad hairdo, can only look bemused. John Hurt, playing the venal Atlantic City casino owner, offers a few limp cackles.
Kwietniowski seems to prefer that actors to be mere placeholders for plot mechanics, which explains why he believed that Jason Priestley, of all people, could carry Long Island. Hoffman is a much smarter choice, of course, and he gives a gleam of life to what is otherwise a dry and workmanlike film. Towards the end, Dan's bookie asks him, "Why do you have to go around looking like a douche bag all the time?" We know the answer: It's the Miramax era, and we love to watch it.
Run time: 104 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 25th September 2003
Box Office USA: $0.7M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
Fresh: 74 Rotten: 20
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Richard Kwietniowski
Screenwriter: Maurice Chauvet
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Dan Mahowny, Minnie Driver as Belinda, John Hurt as Victor Foss, Maury Chaykin as Frank Perlin, Ian Tracey as Det. Ben Lock, K. C. Collins as Bernie, Jason Blicker as Dave Quinson, Vince Corazza as Doug, Sonja Smits as Dana Selkirk
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