Owning Mahowny is something of a contradiction: a movie about brazen million-dollar thefts and high-stakes gambling that goes out of its way to avoid even a hint of intrigue. The picture is based on the story of a Toronto banker named Dan Mahowny who, in the early ’80s, supported an increasingly desperate gambling habit by siphoning funds from various portfolios he was responsible for overseeing. Given that his embezzlement totaled more than $10 million, and that most of the cash was turned directly into casino chips to be squandered in all-night (even all-weekend) sessions of blackjack, craps, and roulette, you’d think his story would have a certain sleek sex appeal in spite of itself.
But director Richard Kwietniowski is more interested in the tragic banality of addiction than in any incidental appeal that addiction might have for the rest of us. In other words, the filmKwietniowski’s second feature, following 1997’s Love and Death on Long Islandhas a lot more in common with Hard Eight than Ocean’s Eleven. (And to be fair, that $10 million figure is in Canadian dollars, which makes it a bit less impressive.) The movie is about how Mahowny digs his own grave, and we get to see every single shovelful of dirt.
Given those priorities, it seems likely that a decisive moment in the making of the film came when Philip Seymour Hoffman agreed to play the title role. Though Hoffman has occasionally tried his hand at bombastic partsmost memorably sharing the stage with John C. Reilly in a New York revival of Sam Shepard’s True West a couple of years agohe is much more at home playing a quietly obsessive loner of one kind or another. He’s even developed a trademarkand surprisingly flexiblemanifestation of his characters’ loserness: heavy breathing in the form of a faint nasal whine. You could hear it in Happiness, as Hoffman’s pathetic Allen sat on the edge of his bed, working up the courage to make his next obscene phone call. It was there in Boogie Nights, too, and, in a somewhat softer version, in 25th Hour, in which Hoffman played a straitlaced English teacher with a paralyzing crush on one of his students.
In Owning Mahowny, the sound of Hoffman’s breathing practically operates as voice-over, a rising and falling testament to the protagonist’s inability to radiate any bad-boy charisma even when he’s got a million dollars in cash tucked into his suit pocket. There it is, almost reassuringly, in the opening scene, which comes inside a therapist’s office after Mahowny has been caught; and there it is again as the movie flashes back to the days before he realized just how easy it was to write up loan applications for fictional customers and take the money for himself.
In these early scenes, Mahowny actually shows signs of confidence and success: He has a pretty girlfriend named Belinda (Minnie Driver, almost unrecognizable underneath a blond wig) and has become the youngest assistant manager in the history of his bank, at age 34. But it doesn’t take long to see that a gambling problem is threatening to throw his life off the rails. About 10 minutes in, one of Mahowny’s superiors is praising him for his “impeccable record” and “excellent judgment.” Soon after, we see two guys from the racetrack lounging predatorily in Mahowny’s office, looking to collect.
And so it goes for Mahowny: success at the office, where he manages to steal increasingly large amounts of money while pleasing his superiors and his customers, coupled with punishing losses at the tables and the sports books of Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Though he occasionally seems to know what he’s doing as a gambler, more often he seems crazed, even spastic, in his betting. “Give me all the home teams in the National, and all the away in the American,” he says frantically to his bookie, Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin). Another time he puts money on all the underdogs in the Canadian Football League in one fell and foolish swoop.
Eventually, his gambling addiction and the casinos where he indulges itpersonified here by casino manager Victor Foss, played expertly by John Hurtmorph into a single entity: a bottomless pit that can never be filled. Mahowny keeps adding zeros to the fake loans and felonious bank drafts, yet he still stumbles back to Toronto on Monday morning with nothing but loose change in his pockets. First he takes $15,000 of stolen money with him for what turns out to be a losing weekend. Then $100,000. Then a million.
The fact that Mahowny’s demise unfolds in utterly predictable fashion, though, turns out to be an asset for the film rather than a liability. The movie has a steady, unflappable rhythm, a consistency that is aided by a cool, uncluttered visual style; a palette drained of bright colors; and a spare, atmospheric score by Richard Grassby-Lewis and the Insects. Hoffman’s terrific performance, meanwhile, perfectly matches that tone, giving us a man who can scream in desperation without even opening his mouth. Indeed, Mahowny is one of the actor’s best losers to date, and Owning Mahowny is what might be called a filmmaker’s film: Simply but impeccably made, it stands up to repeat viewings even though it fails to generate much excitement the first time around.
The latest from Chinese director Chen Kaige, on the other hand, is all about overheated virtuosity, of both the cinematic and the musical varieties. The man who brought us Farewell My Concubine a decade ago is back with Together, the story of a violin prodigy named Xiaochun who travels with his father from the provinces to Beijing in hope of finding fame and fortune.
Xiaochun (Tang Yun), a shy but somehow preternaturally assured 13-year-old with a bowl cut, has seemingly nothing in common with his overzealous stage father (overplayed by Liu Peiqi). Distancing himself as quickly as possible, the boy begins studying in the tiny two-room apartment of the gentle Professor Jiang (Wang Zhiwen), which is crammed with cats, a grand piano, and sheet music, and then moves on to the studio of the more professional, and more Westernized, Professor Yu (played by the director).
The film is both striking for its visualsthe camera hopping from Beijing rooftop to alleyway and back againand for the surprisingly nuanced way it explores the contrast and interplay between Chinese and Western culture, between peasant values and big-city cosmopolitanism, and between the old corruptions of party bosses and the emerging ones of capitalist expediency.
But Chen forgets about subtlety almost everywhere else: Whenever the boy picks up his violin to play an important piece, for example, he’s lit from above, his head glowing as if surrounded by a halo. And it doesn’t take long for the story of Xiaochun’s musical and emotional progress to turn fully melodramatic, leading to a finale that would be corny in any language. If you’re a fan of sentimentality and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D, Together may be the movie for you. Otherwise, it provides little more than a well-appointed master class in manipulation. CP