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Sure Bet?

Philip Seymour Hoffman owns Owning Mahowny.

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Though he's shown plenty of range, playing smug or swaggering with great aplomb in the likes of Punch-Drunk Love, Almost Famous, and The Talented Mr. Ripley (which may be his finest performance, despite its limited screen time), Philip Seymour Hoffman may still be best recognized as his generation's greatest cinematic icon of anxiety and sloppy, unkempt neediness.

Dan Mahowny, the Toronto bank manager Hoffman plays in Owning Mahowny, is the latter --a cousin to the obsessive, uncomfortable loser the actor portrayed so memorably in Happiness and Boogie Nights. Hoffman's Mahowny is in control of some aspects of his life. He's talented at buttering up his superiors at the bank and has a pretty, devoted (and perhaps just as unhealthily obsessive) girlfriend (Minnie Driver). But other things are falling apart, and Mahowny's disheveled physical appearance --his pudgy, pink skin protruding from poorly fitting suits, his perpetually agitated yet self-contained expression decorated with an awkward comb-over and dark, blocky glasses --gives a hint of the chaos.

Mahowny is frugal in his public and even private life -- driving a beater of a car, worrying about spending $30 on a dinner with his girlfriend even though the occasion is to celebrate a new promotion and raise -- but in his secret life he gambles outrageous sums of money, betting on sporting events with his bookie Frank (veteran character actor and Atom Egoyan regular Maury Chakin) and on increasingly desperate and nonsensical bets -- such as taking all the home teams in the National League and all the road teams in the American League for $1,000 each. When his debt grows unmanageable, Mahowny takes the dramatic step of issuing a bank loan under a false name to pay it off, and then there's no turning back.

Owning Mahowny is the true story of bank drone Brian Molony who, in the early 1980s, embezzled $10 million from his employer over a two-year span and lost it all at the tables in Atlantic City, where the casino was so pleased to have his business that near the end of his two-year spree it was flying him in on a private jet.

Director Richard Kwietniowski (following up his debut, Love and Death on Long Island) tracks Mahowny's lost weekend as a blankly obsessive affair. We never see an early winning streak that might have gotten Mahowny hooked, and we see little of the thrill of gambling as the protagonist describes it to a therapist late in the film. Mahowny seems not addicted to the thrill of winning but to the thrill of risking and losing, so much so that he seems incapable of leaving the table as long as there is money left to gamble, his single-minded devotion to losing money making him an obscure object of desire for Atlantic City casino manager Victor Foss (John Hurt), who watches Mahowny gambling from his surveillance cage and cackles, "He's a beauty. I love him!" Early in the film, when Frank tries to turn away Mahowny's business, the addict is incredulous, saying, "You can't do that. So what am I supposed to do? Go to the racetrack and watch?"

Kwietniowski plays this scenario as a dry comedy. He also took a slyly comic approach to an obsessive scenario in Love and Death on Long Island, where Hurt's protagonist was infatuated with a young actor played by Jason Priestley. (One wonders whether Lolita is Kwietniowski's favorite novel?) But his precise direction is so unflashy as to border on dull. The director nicely captures Mahowny's antiseptic environment of bank offices, casino gaming halls, and parking garages and neatly compares casino managers and bank executives to vultures who prey on the bad judgment of their clients. But ultimately, Owning Mahowny hinges on Hoffman's performance and whether such an inscrutable, unattractive character can carry a film. Mission accomplished.

Errol Morris' The Thin Blue LINE, one of the greatest of documentaries, begins with a mystery --is its protagonist, a convicted murderer, actually guilty of the crime of which he's been accused? -- and ends with a certainty -- someone else all but confessing to the same crime on tape. In some ways Andrew Jarecki's harrowing Capturing the Friedmans is reminiscent of Morris' film, except it works in the opposite way: It begins with a certainty of sorts -- Long Island school teacher Arnold Friedman and his teenage son Jesse pled guilty in the late '80s to several counts of child molestation -- but by the end of the film very little about its subject seems established or even knowable. Friedmans is a Rashomon scenario, with many different voices giving achingly different accounts of the very same act(s), but where Kurosawa's iconic film seemed to conclude that all of its witnesses were lying, the awful truth of Capturing the Friedmans is that everyone may be telling the truth, at least as they see it.

But perhaps the most astounding thing about the film is that it isn't even that complicated. Jarecki's tragic, sometimes horrifyingly comic film (inspiring the kind of laughs that catch in your throat) actually begins as the film Jarecki originally set out to make: a profile of David Friedman, the most popular children's birthday clown in New York City. The interviews with David and with his mother Elaine seen early on were, in retrospect, clearly conducted for this film, as each cagily avoids the subject of David's father when the director rather innocently inquires about it.

But then Jarecki plunges the viewer down the rabbit's hole, a sinister twilight crane shot over the tree-lined street of Great Neck, New York, segueing into a clip from a video diary David made in 1988, in which he stares at the camera (and thus, now, the film's audience) and says: "This is private. So if you're not me you shouldn't be watching this."

What follows is the spellbinding but sorrowful vision of a family and a community spinning apart, told through present-day interviews, file footage, and, most dramatically, home movies taken by and provided by the Friedmans themselves. The extent to which this family documented themselves is astounding. First are the innocent home movies taken before Arnold Friedman was arrested in a child-pornography sting and he and his youngest son, Jesse, were charged with multiple counts of molesting the neighborhood kids in Arnold's home-based computer class. Then come home movies, audio tapes, and the aforementioned video diaries taken by David and his brothers (including middle son Seth, who declined to be interviewed for the film) during the tumultuous aftermath of the arrest. We see this nuclear family falling apart before our eyes as they sit around the dining-room table or circle each other in the family kitchen, planning trial strategy and casting blame.

Jarecki's method here is the strategic parceling of information, so that just when the viewer is feeling comfortable with one version of the truth a bit of previously withheld information is revealed that increases the doubt and confusion -- like police interviews in which investigators innocently and unwittingly expose horribly flawed and biased practices -- or the fact that Arnold admitted to a couple of earlier pedophilic incidents or that one student, whose testimony resulted in multiple counts of felony abuse, now admits that he has no actual memory of any transgressions and that his testimony at the time came from hypnosis. These ricocheting bits of information tighten to the point where Jarecki cuts back and forth between interviews with Jesse and his lawyer, who give directly opposed accounts of why Jesse eventually pleaded guilty.

The closest the film comes to an unbiased voice is investigative reporter Debbie Nathan, who covered a string of similar cases across the nation at the time, including the Friedmans', and who is suspicious of the "hysteria" over the allegations. But not even her testimony can totally put the viewer at ease.

Ultimately, Capturing the Friedmans is most moving, and most troubling, not as a portrait of a legal system gone wrong or a terrible crime committed but as a horrifying vision of a flawed family utterly destroyed, whether through injustice, personal transgression, the cruelty of nature, or all of the above.

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