Losing Streak

Mahowny needs more than lady luck

Philip Seymour Hoffman, as everybody knows by now, is one of the best actors of his generation. We all loved him in Magnolia, Boogie Nights and Happiness. Even a downer like Spike Lee's 25th Hour became just a tad more bearable largely because of Hoffman's presence.

So why is the enormously talented Philip Seymour Hoffman having such a tough time finding a starring role in a movie that doesn't suck?

The quick, short and easy answer is that Hoffman's yet to sink his fangs into the sort of good, juicy script that allows him to really shine. Case in point: the mostly tepid Love Liza, the erratic and static Flawless and now Owning Mahowny (which we'll get to in a moment, honest).

The other possible answer — and this is the answer that we might not want to hear — is that the problem lies not with the movies that Hoffman chooses to do, but with Hoffman himself.

There's no question that Hoffman's a talented guy. But it's hard not to begin wondering if he's got the right stuff to carry a feature-length film.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. There's no shame in being a character actor — a great actor is a great actor, after all, as evidenced by Edward G. Robinson, Peter Lorre, Gloria Graham and too many others to name. It's just possible that Hoffman's particular talent is better suited to small, carefully honed parts in other people's movies.

In any event, time will tell. It's still early in this actor's career and anything's possible. But judging from the evidence before us at the moment — evidence that leads us right to Hoffman's new film Owning Mahowny (see, told you we'd get to it eventually) — the signs are not good.

As the opening credits tell us, Owning Mahowny is based on a true story. That's potentially important information because Owning Mahowny follows to some degree in the tradition of films like Catch Me If You Can. The things we see the characters get away with onscreen are often so implausible that about the only way to make sense of them is to relegate them to the anything goes realm of The-Truth-is-Stranger-than-Fiction.

The movie is based on the story of a Toronto bank employee who embezzled millions of dollars in the early '80s to feed his secret gambling habit. The guy's name was Molony, here somewhat clumsily renamed Mahowny, apparently because it sounds better with "Owning." Mahowny is also apparently an anagram for that seminal gambling query, "How many," which is something I know only because one of the movie's characters dutifully brings it to our attention.

Dan Mahowny is another one of those nerdy, repressed and badly dressed milquetoasts that Hoffman seems to specialize in. Like Hoffman's character in Love Liza, Mahowny is nondescript, living a life of quiet desperation and carrying around an Oprah-size monkey on his back. In fact, Owning Mahowny could almost be a remake of Love Liza, minus the earlier film's dead wife and circuitous subplots. Just substitute a gambling jones for that quirky addiction to gas fumes, and voila: instant indie.

At root, both movies are little more than routine observations of the downward spirals of their main characters, and Owning Mahowny's race to the bottom is particularly excruciating. Mahowny's not a train wreck waiting to happen. His particular smash-up has taken place well before the film begins, and the movie simply shows us the gory details in what often feels like slow motion. The film is detached, icy and methodical. It's almost like watching an autopsy, albeit one featuring recognizable stars and a hip soundtrack.

Even the modest highs and lows of Love Liza are absent, since Owning Mahowny's tale is told in flashback, thereby eliminating most of the potential for suspense. Hoffman's character is way over his head before the movie's barely begun. He's a walking "No Exit" sign from the get-go, introduced to us as he's putting together a series of fake loans to pay off his ever-increasing gambling debts. Sweet but clueless fiancée Belinda (Minnie Driver in an atrocious blond wig and clunky glasses) doesn't suspect a thing, and Mahowny just sinks deeper and deeper, his addiction encouraged by boorish bookies and greedy casino managers (the always wonderful Maury Chakin and John Hurt, respectively).

The movie isn't interested in passing judgment on Mahowny, nor does it offer any illumination as to why he is the way he is. Mahowny is apparently beyond greed or some kinky urge for self-destruction, beyond even good and evil. The film never really examines his addiction and would have us believe there's no logic or understanding to his behavior, other than what Mahowny himself describes (in the movie's last minutes) as a desire for excitement. Maybe, but the excitement thing's almost impossible to swallow in light of how little fun everyone seems to be having. With his limited appetite for any sort of pleasure, Hoffman's blander-than-bland character comes off as anything but a thrill seeker. Even the film itself often seems on the verge of lifelessness.

Owning Mahowny was directed by Richard Kwietniowski, who displayed a whole lot more energy and imagination in Love and Death on Long Island, a smart and funny affair that positively crackled with perverse wit. Owning Mahowny, by comparison, is dead weight and deadpan. It's like a monologue delivered in monotone, constricted by limited dynamics and a main character who's so bland he's practically invisible.

As for Hoffman, it's not really appropriate to call his performance one-note since the character he's playing is by nature somewhat one-dimensional. But the bottom line is there's just not enough there to sustain our interest for 90-some minutes.

Hoffman obviously feels considerable affinity with these types of pained and painfully ordinary characters, and he certainly plays them as well as anybody else working these days. But the sad truth of the matter is that, in its way, his is an artistic decision that's beginning to look a little bit like Stallone or Schwarzenegger playing the same silly action hero over and over again. As enormously talented as Philip Seymour Hoffman is, he's in danger of becoming just another actor who keeps repeating himself.

Film Critic Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 157.

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