Procrastination Nation

Things that Robert is thinking about that keep him from accomplishing anything.

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Friday, August 22, 2003
Review – Owning Mahowny
My fantasy is to quarantine a Borders or Barnes and Noble or Powell’s or some other huge bookstore, remove the coffee bar nonsense, and install a bedroom, kitchen, and full bathroom somewhere on the premises for me to live in. In the meantime, I have spent my adult life acquiring their inventory and the inventory of every thrift store and garage sale, one piece at a time, and placing it in my home.

It’s not just books either. I love magazines, too. I don’t even care so much about the subject matter. I swiped a copy of Nation’s Restaurant News, the leading weekly magazine for restaurant general managers, at a chain restaurant last month, and I am seriously thinking about getting a subscription even though I have never worked in a restaurant in my life.

As anyone with an obsession will tell you, the joy in the obsession comes not from the object of the obsession but the obsessing itself. The obsessively clean get their joy from the ritual of cleaning, not having a clean place. My books and magazines are lightly, if ever, read; but, finding them and having them brings an indescribable joy. Life is about means rather than ends.

Last night I found myself at the movie theatre. I had planned to see “Swimming Pool” to get my decennial French ingenue fix, but the 7:05 show was cancelled for a movie preview. Looking through the list of options, I recognized “Owning Mahowny” from a review in The Onion AV Club. I figure if it has Philip Seymour Hoffman in it, it is worth watching. (In fact, there is a whole essay to write on actors who, simply by their association with a film, signal a movie is worth watching no matter how ridiculous or outré the premise. Hoffman heads that very short list. Even in his one failure—the execrable “Patch Adams”—he was the only redeeming part.)

“Owning Mahowny” is the tale of a rising Toronto bank executive, Dan Mahowny (pronounced like Mahoney), who has a compulsive gambling habit, which he rationalizes as a “financial problem.” He earns a promotion early in the movie, which parallels his graduation from horse racing to weekend jaunts to Atlantic City. He quickly learns that he can tap into the credit lines of his bank customers and, because he’s that nice Canadian boy executive, nobody will question his withdrawals of many hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to finance his gambling.

Almost no movie about vices has as its hero a successful addict. The drunks and druggies and gamblers throw away their careers and families for the addiction, and our protagonist in this film is no exception.* We see pretty quickly how bad Mahowny’s problem is in his ridiculous sports bets with his Toronto bookie (the always enjoyable character actor Maury Chaykin, who you’ll recognize from many films, including "War Games," in which he shouts the still-funny line, “Mr. Potato Head! Mr. Potato Head!”)—“Give me all the home teams in the American League and all the away teams in the National”—in fact, this is what I picture Pete Rose’s life is like, only with less amphetamines—and how it affects his home life with would-be financée Belinda (Minnie Driver, who has a ball showing off her shiny new Canadian accent and covering up in her dowdy, early-80s couture).

But it all pales in comparison to life in Atlantic City. No amount of attention from the casino manager (a wonderful John Hurt) or his lackeys will deter him from playing the tables every minute the casino is open. Despite his ability to get unlimited quantities of cash, it never occurs to him to spend any of it on fancy cars or clothes. While other high rollers enjoy the casino perks—drinks, meals, shows, hookers—our boy is a purist: he’s in it for the gambling.

It’s not hard to see why Hoffman would choose this role. He’s the lead, but it’s essentially the kind of character role he’s always playing—whether it’s Freddie in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” or the love-sick Scotty in “Boogie Nights” or the concerned nurse in “Magnolia." Some will say it’s the writing of these quirky little characters that make them ripe for scene-stealing, but I will argue that it’s the result of a supremely talented actor applying his skill that transforms them from bit parts to career-makers.

Hoffman’s performance is remarkable for its restraint. As out of control as his gambling is, Hoffman never forgets that this is still a banker with a gambling problem, and he behaves accordingly, with simple economy of gesture, flat affect, and thoughtful action, even when his scam is most in danger of failing.

This movie isn’t for everyone. Judging from the audience, I am one of the few people who will laugh at the most ridiculous proposition bets or groan audibly as the hero pisses away more and more money. (I’m like the boys in the security camera booth in the movie tracking this hoser through the casino.) But, if you like to see great acting in the context of a human train wreck of addiction, this is the summer movie for you.

*: The only examples I can think of off the top of my head are:

  • Nicolas Cage’s character in “Leaving Las Vegas,” who at least in the beginning communicates the absolute joy a drunk must feel at the prospect of getting drunk as he goes through the liquor store spending his severance check;
  • Samuel L. Jackson’s Gator in “Jungle Fever,” who is so fun and likable initially that being a crack head seems like an interesting lifestyle choice; and,
  • Matt Damon’s character in “Rounders,” who shows that gambling isn’t necessarily an addiction, though it seems to have an obsessional hold on him despite his success.

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