Stakes need to be raised

Times Staff Writer

Richard Kwietniowski's "Owning Mahowny" is not a perfect film but is a perfect fit for Philip Seymour Hoffman. He plays a seemingly ordinary young Toronto banker with a head for numbers good enough to impress his superiors into promoting him to assistant manager at a vast old marble institution in the city's financial district. What they don't know is that he is a compulsive gambler.

Hoffman's Mahowny is amazing in his daring and ability to cover his tracks, even on the spur of the moment. He's soon spending weekends at an Atlantic City casino whose manager (John Hurt), a man of stylishly gruff false bonhomie, sizes him up as a high-stakes risk-taker worth his personal attention. Lavish accommodations, hookers, fine wines mean nothing to Mahowny, who's happy to fuel himself on barbecue ribs. Hurt's shrewd, shady Victor Foss is an ideal foil to Hoffman's deceptively unprepossessing Mahowny, a brilliant monomaniac who lives for the thrill of gambling and little else.

Kwietniowski, who directed Hurt as an eccentric British writer obsessed with a young movie actor (Jason Priestley) in 1997's acclaimed "Love and Death on Long Island," takes a rigorously low-key approach in telling Mahowny's story (based on an actual incident and adapted by Maurice Chauvet from the book "Stung" by Gary Ross). Mahowny is a drab-looking man who lives in a drab world -- even Hurt's casino is a dull shade of brown. Mahowny's sorely neglected live-in fiancee, Belinda, a clerk at his bank, is also drab -- to the extent that it takes a while to realize she's played by Minnie Driver, her distinctive looks hidden by a wig and plain attire.

The terrific concentration Hoffman brings to the part, his bi-play with Hurt, and the emerging presence of Driver as a woman whose love for a man remains undiminished go a long way to hold attention through a dauntingly elliptical plot. Also pluses are Maury Chakin as Mahowny's wise bookie and Chris Collins as a kindly casino employee.

Although it's understandable why Kwietniowski would go for understatement to set off Mahowny's increasingly risky high-wire act, he might have tried for some edginess that would express a measure of the excitement Mahowny is experiencing. Despite the driven intensity of the banker, the film threatens to slip into the lifelessness of the drab world it depicts.


'Owning Mahowny'

MPAA rating: R for language and some sexuality

Times guidelines: Some brief nudity, some language, complex plot and themes

Philip Seymour Hall ...Dan Mahowny

Minnie Driver...Belinda

John Hurt...Victor Foss

Maury Chakin...Frank Perlin

Chris Collins...Bernie

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director Richard Kwietniowski. Producers Andras Hamori, Setaon McLean, Alessandro Camon. Executive producers Edward R. Pressman, Sean Furst. Screenplay Maurice Chauvet; based on the book "Stung" by Gary Ross. Cinematographer Oliver Curtis. Editor Mike Munn. Music the Insects, Richard Grassby-Lewis, featuring Jon Hassell. Costumes Gersha Phillips. Production designer Taavo Soodor. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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