Owning Mahowny

(2003) *** R
104 min. distributer. Director: Richard Kwietniowski. Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Minnie Driver, John Hurt, Maury Chaykin, Sonja Smits.

Richard Kwietniowski's atmospheric Owning Mahowny does for gambling addiction--in a minor key--what Days of Wine and Roses did for alcoholism. In concert with quintessential schlub Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kwietniowski depicts a man's collapse in extreme close-up, and though the film will likely come and go with little fanfare, Owning Mahowny's scrappy charm and unsettling, deep-seated hurt are sure to leave an impression on those who gamble on the film.

Adapted from Gary Ross's book "No Limit," Owning Mahowny retells, psuedonymously, the true story of a Toronto loan officer who played a bank against a casino to maintain his gambling buzz. Dan Mahowny, as played by Hoffman, earns the title "the Iceman" for his poker-faced demeanor as his fortunes rise and fall on the floor of a Vegas casino. John Hurt--so good in Kwietniowski's last film Love and Death on Long Island--serves up a delicious and devilish performance as the amoral casino manager determined to indulge Mahowny's every whim in order ultimately to bleed him dry. Owning Mahowny is also, nominally, a sort of implosive romance: Minnie Driver's Belinda tries--with patience sorely tested--to pull Mahowny out of his diseased mire.

Without preaching, Kwietniowski plays the same tricky games on the audience as the film's "haves" play on the "have-nots." Kwietniowski depicts a spinning safe lock as a roulette wheel, and indeed, the bank and the casino appear to be too sides of the same unobtainable coin. Nothing corrupts like money, so audiences will find themselves pulling for Mahowny to indulge his addiction as much as to beat it--like Mahowny, the viewer can't fold; the hand must be played. At one parting, Belinda gives "the Iceman" a coat, but before the night is through, it must be stripped from him. The ambience of cold and lonely parking lots--the waystations between the encroaching walls of the casino and the bank--exemplify the film's tone. The only fleetingly real companionship for the addict at the craps table is his own shadow staring back at him.

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