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Bet Noir: Toronto banker Philip Seymour Hoffman gambles away more than he can pay off in 'Owning Mahowny.'

Dan Le Flambeur

Philip Seymour Hoffman sweats again in 'Owning Mahowny'

By Richard von Busack

THE ADVANTAGE of having Philip Seymour Hoffman play a Canadian should be obvious right away--it dries him up somewhat. Yes, Hoffman delves into his usual acting bag of tricks. Here's that drastic slouch, as if his shoulders were trying to swallow his neck; here's that dead-man's pale stare; here's the obligatory scene where he wallows in his Jockeys on a bed (he's done more underwear scenes than Cameron Diaz). Once again, the camera lingers on the sweat exuding from the rim of that mammoth head (Hoffman's the natural choice to play Karl Rove, if only an adequate W. could be found). However, the slight difference here from the garden-variety Hoffman part is the fact that he's a little bottled up, as befits a Toronto banker locked tight in a compulsive double life.

Owning Mahowny is based loosely on Stung, Gary Ross' nonfiction account of the embezzlement of some $10 million by one Brian Molony from a Toronto bank. In this version, set in the early 1980s, Dan Mahowny, an unusually young vice president, becomes indebted to local racetrack bookies and begins siphoning off money to play in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. The deception goes unnoticed, for a while. Mahowny's long-suffering girlfriend (and enabler) Belinda, played by Minnie Driver, is the only one who suspects his problem. As Mahowny's desperation increases, he begins even more desperate schemes for drawing out money.

In interviews, director Richard Kwietniowski has attempted to link Mahowny's ruinous gambling with the risky, mad conduct of investment bankers during the Reagan years. Visually, this comparison doesn't wash. The bank we see here is a stodgy, conservative place, as still and quiet as a library.

To make Hoffman's shambling Mahowny seem proactive, there's a character who watches him throughout: an Atlantic City gambling tycoon played by John Hurt (who played a tweedy minor novelist in Kwietniowski's previous film, Love and Death on Long Island). As Victor Hoss, who has a spurious tan and capped teeth, the wizened Hurt is a likely-looking gaming-industry alligator. But somehow Hoss rose to head a casino without seeing a really degenerate gambler before. He gives up some Olympian chortles over Mahowny's cool, nicknames him "Iceman" and exclaims over the man's nerve. Similarly, the local Toronto bookies handle Mahowny leniently when the banker starts stiffing them. (The role's not believable, yet it's satisfying to see Maury Chaykin's easygoing self as one of the bookies.) And the police watching both Mahowny and the bookies talk to each other with the radio-play stiffness of an old Quinn Martin TV police show.

The movie is all Hoffman. He's onscreen almost the whole way. To some, that will be the appeal; to others, a warning. Hoffman, irrepressibly repressed, plays Mahowny as an empty man, overstating the lack of pleasure in a man's life, even in those rare scenes where he wins.

Owning Mahowny (R; 107 min.), directed by Richard Kwietniowski, written by Maurice Chauvet, based on the book by Gary Stephen Ross, photographed by Oliver Curtis and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Minnie Driver and John Hurt, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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Web extra to the May 15-21, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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