Disturbing snapshot of addiction

October 03, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Philip Seymour Hoffman paints a fascinating, and perhaps unique, portrait of addiction in Owning Mahowny.

Based on a true incident, Mahowny tells the story of a Toronto assistant bank manager whose real full-time job is gambling addict. And the real magic of Hoffman's performance is that he refuses to make Mahowny anything special, or use histrionics to show the depths of his addiction. This may be the quietest addict ever to hit movie screens, as well the most disturbing.

We get no background on Mahowny; screenwriter Maurice Chauvet's script is concerned only with the here and now. This is not a portrait of addiction, but rather a snapshot - a few moments in the life of a man who's given over control of his life to a game of chance, and doesn't even realize he's shortchanging himself.

Mahowny's addiction is well-advanced by the time we meet him, but we do get to witness him at a crossroads. No longer able to pay off his debts, he hits on a plan to skim money from the bank by tapping into some rich customers' credit lines. At first, he only embezzles a little at a time, but soon he's siphoning off tens of thousands at a time (before it's over, he'll have taken more than $10 million).

And to the last, Mahowny insists he doesn't have a gambling problem. Just a financial problem.

There are all sorts of people to blame for Mahowny's problems, including the bank managers who never even think to question his actions, to the casino owner (a reptilian John Hurt) who sees him only as a cash cow to be milked dry, to the girlfriend (Minnie Driver) too timid to even try pulling him out of the morass.

But in the end, the only one to blame is Mahowny, and in his understated, emotionally stilted performance, Hoffman gives us a character who understands that. Mahowny never rails against fate, never stares at his sweaty, shaking palms, never bemoans the shallowness of his existence. He's just a gambler, a guy who gets his only thrills from placing bets; whether he wins or loses is strictly an afterthought.

None of the supporting characters in Owning Mahowny amounts to much (Driver's part is especially underwritten), but that may be the point. This is a man for whom only the moment matters, and then only in the degree to which each moment satisfies his own, insatiable need. That a man could plummet to such depths, without even realizing he's in a hole in the first place, is both pitiable and horrifying. Maybe the latter more so.

Owning Mahowny

Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Minnie Driver

Directed by Richard Kwietniowski

Rated R (language, brief sexuality)

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Time 107 minutes

Sun Score ***

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