Risk Management

Gambling Pros and Mutant Superheroes Spread the Odds

A bone-dry comedy, Richard Kwietniowski's Owning Mahowny is based on the true story of the unprepossessing Canadian bank drone Brian Molony, who, back in the early '80s, managed to embezzle some $10 million, all of which he lost at the gaming tables of Atlantic City. So pleased was the casino to have his business that toward the end of his 20-month spree, they were flying him in from Toronto on a private Lear jet, no questions asked.

Psychologists of gambling refer to a first "winning phase" in which betting is experienced as a self-validating activity and pleasurable thrill; Owning Mahowny, however, opens with Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a relentlessly self-effacing performance) already in his losing phase, taking increased risks and obsessively chasing his losses. Mahowny is $40,000 in debt to bookie Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin) when he flies to Atlantic City with $100,000 skimmed from a client's account and promptly loses the entire bundle.

Albeit given to superstition and mood swings, Hoffman's Mahowny is basically an automaton in the grip of a bad program. Kwietniowski's gamble: Can this repressed, depressed, adenoidal schlub hold the movie? Although the action is framed by a psychotherapeutic session, the audience is never privy to Mahowny's consciousness. Rather, one is invited to be impressed by the spectacular impression the badly dressed, barely communicative Mahowny makes on the cold-eyed casino manager Victor Foss (a superbly vulpine John Hurt). This single-minded gambler turns down all offers of free booze, food, and sex. All he wants to do is lose his money: "He's a beauty—I love him," Foss cackles from his surveillance aerie, expressing an excitement that seems totally beyond frozen-faced Mahowny.

Can the depressed, adenoidal schlub hold the movie? Hoffman in Owning Mahowny.
photo: Ava Gerlitz
Can the depressed, adenoidal schlub hold the movie? Hoffman in Owning Mahowny.


Owning Mahowny
Directed by Richard Kwietniowski
Written by Maurice Chauvet, from the book Stung by Gary Ross
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens May 2

The Dancer Upstairs
Directed by John Malkovich
Written by Nicholas Shakespeare, from his novel
Fox Searchlight
Opens May 2

Directed by Bryan Singer
Written by Dan Harris & Michael Dougherty
20th Century Fox
Opens May 2

Purist that he is, Mahowny is constantly raising the stakes in his ongoing embezzlement, but however mighty his temporary gains, his hard-wiring is such that he is never able to leave the table with any winnings. And yet it would not be entirely correct to characterize him as "luckless." Mahowny does have a faithful fiancée, Belinda (Minnie Driver), who in her irrational devotion to this unresponsive lump seems no less obsessive-compulsive than he. And even more amazingly, Mahowny (who turns out to be a master at schmoozing his greedy superiors) is a veritable Matrix-man, successfully pirouetting around a fusillade of bullets that range from bank audits to surprise upheavals in the accounts he's been juggling.

Remaining largely outside gambler psychology even as he accentuates its repetitive rhythms, Kwietniowski establishes an equivalence between corporate bankers and casino managers—both eagerly exploiting the bad judgment and addiction of their clients. (The eccentric Perlin is an exception—his only apparent means of collecting on Mahowny's debts is to deny him any more credit.) Kwietniowski's first feature, Love and Death on Long Island, was also a comedy of mad passion. There, however, his protagonist was fixated on a human object (Jason Priestley) and hence appeared more poignant and ridiculous in his desire. Owning Mahowny shares the earlier film's crisp precision, but it's a far more rigorously sublimated and abstract account of l'amour fou. Mahowny's alienation is mirrored in the movie's deliberately antiseptic, artificially illuminated environment. Although overtly concerned with the tasteful theatrics of power, Kwietniowski's direction is so hushed that it runs the risk of seeming dull.

As air-conditioned as its mise-en-scène is, Owning Mahowny takes a long time to reach its boiling point. By the time the cop tapping Perlin's phone becomes aware of the mysterious Mahowny and wonders aloud what these "clowns" might be up to, you realize that it's a literal characterization: Mahowny's blank face and broken-down jalopy, Belinda's big blond wig and oversize glasses, Perlin's every utterance are strictly from the circus. The bookie even has the custom license plate "KAR TUN."

Directed by John Malkovich from Nicholas Shakespeare's adaptation of his 1995 novel, The Dancer Upstairs is an ambitious political thriller set in an unnamed Andean country. A revolutionary cult, modeled after Peru's Shining Path, is waging a war of terror against a corrupt government. Only the cops are honest, or at least one: detective Agustin Rejas, played by a suave and sleepy-eyed Javier Bardem.

The minions of the mad Maoist philosophy professor who calls himself Ezequiel have signaled their sinister presence in the capital by leaving dead dogs hanging from the lampposts. Chickens explode in the marketplace, and every time there's a blackout, the adherents of Communism's self-proclaimed "Fourth Flame" set off fireworks in the form of the hammer and sickle. Soon the terrorists are using children and fashion models to deliver their bombs and even attack the audience of an already abusive avant-garde theater piece. The latter ploy provokes the government into not only declaring martial law but massacring a group of innocent drama students. For his part, Agustin—who was born in the highlands—is haunted by a videotape of Ezequielism in action. A girl from the cop's native village coolly executes the local priest he'd once served as an altar boy.

Closer to The Quiet American than Collateral Damage, lacking neither atmosphere nor moral dilemma, The Dancer Upstairs is appropriately foreboding even in its violence. There's no way for anyone to keep their hands clean. In essence, Ezequiel is a serial killer—precisely the sort of self-aggrandizing over-intellectual villain that Malkovich himself has often played. (Of course, the actor has more recently taken the part of F.W. Murnau in Shadow of the Vampire and appeared as a somewhat lesser maestro in Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home.) In any case, The Dancer Upstairs's emphasis is less on madcap Ezequiel than on the brooding, boring Agustin. The stage is set for bourgeois tragedy as this emphatically good man, saddled with an aggressively superficial wife, grows fascinated with his 10-year-old daughter's comely ballet teacher, Yolanda (Italian actress Laura Morante).

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