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Break the bank

Hoffman's winning performance trumps Owning Mahowny

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Philip Seymour Hoffman has, without a doubt, mastered the geek, the nobody, the wretched consummate loser.

In Owning Mahowny, he employs his entire trick bag of nebbish effects to tell the story of a mild-mannered Toronto bank manager leading a secret life as a compulsive gambler.

Hoffman's Dan Mahowny is culled from real life. He's based on a high-rolling gambler who pilfered money from his bank job -- in the largest case of one-man bank fraud in Canadian history -- to fuel his gambling habit.

Playing another tragedy-dogged dweeb, Hoffman wears abjection on his chubby body and pink face like a flasher's filthy trench coat. He's ashamed but also empowered by his anonymity. We seem to spend the entire film never once making eye contact with Dan, but staring into his greasy part and trying to decipher lines buried in his jowls.

The film is a follow-up to Richard Kwietniowski's bittersweet character study Love and Death on Long Island, but it never reaches the sublime heights of that idiosyncratic indie. Owning Mahowny is a whitebread Casino, devoid of the meatball flash and gamey broads. Although Hoffman's shuffling, downtrodden performance does much to endear the film, this engaging story of white-collar crime is a study in bland.

Like the protective coloration of a chameleon, it is that utter blandness that keeps Dan above suspicion even as he's carrying stacks of money out of the bank. But one of Owning Mahowny's greatest unestablished mysteries isn't how Dan got away with lifting $10 million from his bank. It's how a man whose every fiber is trained on his next gambling binge managed to secure the loyalty of coworker Belinda (Minnie Driver), a consummately dowdy woman in a dreadful dishwater-blond wig and speech riddled with the Canadian stammer "eh?"

The implausibility of that romance nearly wrecks Owning Mahowny's verisimilitude. The woman is dating the charismatic equivalent of a sofa. And while it's tempting to see some parallel between Mahowny's masochistic addiction to the gaming table and Belinda's blind devotion to her unlucky-at-cards lover, that notion merely dangles as a tantalizing possibility rather than an actual subtext.

It's when unctuous casino manager Victor Foss (John Hurt) finally spots the cash-flush Dan that the real hooks of the film dig in. Owning Mahowny is not really a character study of addiction. Hoffman, after all, has the ultimate poker-playing mug (the Atlantic City surveillance cameramen dub him "The Ice Man"). Everything is sublimated and internal, and we never fully grasp how he feels about an obsession he calls a "financial setback." What Hoffman does convey is how obsession might look from the outside, as Dan applies the same nose-to-the-grindstone rigor to gambling that he applies to his bank job.

The real insight Kwietniowski milks in his parallel storylines of Dan's "normal" life at the bank and his gambling life at the casino is the shared objective of both institutions: to get the gambler or the borrower to take all the risk, and the "house" to make the maximum profit.

In this rigged world run by creeps in Brooks Brothers suits and diamond cufflinks, there's only one guy who truly invites sympathy. The only "honest" guy in Kwietniowski's morally fuzzy universe is the bookie Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin), a palooka in Hawaiian shirts and cowboy boots who's offended by Dan's sloppy betting strategy and failure to enjoy the fruits of his addiction -- like a new Cadillac or a better suit. "I don't like it when he makes stupid bets," Perlin carps to his partner after Dan makes a foolish wager. "It's disrespectful to me."

Dan's scenes with Perlin often have the ring of therapy sessions. There is no honor among businessmen, Owning instructs. But among hoods and nobodies like the kid paid to chauffeur Dan through Foss' casino, there is both honor and concern for what Dan is doing to himself. The kid and Perlin fret while Foss sets upon Dan like a tick ready to gorge.

Owning Mahowny is a well-acted, often suspenseful picture about the banal aspects of obsession that never quite delivers. Kwietniowski's parallel between the bankers and the casino as shysters-of-a-feather isn't especially deep. Nor does the little-guy-against-the-house message, where everything seems rigged to separate Dan from as much cash as possible, ever truly gel.

The only guy who can't recognize that the entire system is rigged to help him lose is, of course, Dan. To his credit, Hoffman cogently conveys the man-in-a-plastic-bubble syndrome, where nothing seems to register outside the glowing, beckoning green felt of the blackjack table.

felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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