Thursday, July 24, 2003
By Jeannette Catsoulis
"Everyone has a secret life," is the teasing voice-over as Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) arrives at work on the first day of his promotion to assistant bank manager. A clumsy, nondescript drone, Dan hardly appears capable of what will become the largest one-man bank fraud in Canadian history--until the camera closes in on his private half-smile and restless eyes and we see the cunning beneath the affability.
Owning Mahowny is a slow-motion car wreck, a measured march toward one man's tragic self-destruction. Nothing in Dan's life holds meaning beyond its ability to feed or starve his obsession. When his own money is gone, and his bookie (Maury Chaykin) refuses to extend more credit, Dan uses the bank's, eventually embezzling more than $10 million. Meanwhile, Dan's frighteningly optimistic girlfriend (Minnie Driver) behaves like a textbook enabler, cheerfully excusing his failure to show up for dates.
Maurice Chauvet's screenplay, based on Gary Stephen Ross' book Stung: The Incredible Obsession of Brian Molony, bravely resists the easy melodrama of its subject's addiction in favor of a flat tone of almost emotionless intensity. With no interest in money, Dan gambles for the thrill of the act itself, for a joy so internal and implosive it barely registers on his face, nevermind on the audience.
Matching this sensory restraint, director Richard Kwietniowski washes everything in a claustrophobic, blue-gray tint. So when Dan travels to Atlantic City, and attracts the attention of ghoulish casino manager John Hurt, the gaming areas hum with the same spied-upon orderliness as Dan's bank.
Judging by his previous feature, Love and Death on Long Island, Kwietniowski's interest lies less in the manifestations of obsession than in the paradoxical freedom that emerges when all free will is lost. In that film, a writer (Hurt) develops a crush on a young movie star and sets out to meet him, oblivious to his ridiculousness. Like Dan Mahowny, he's just following his bliss.
Rich man, poor man
In the early '90s, Chinese director Chen Kaige seemed poised for greatness with the masterful melodrama Farewell, My Concubine, a film so sharply observant of the country's political troubles that it was initially banned by the Chinese government. Along with other Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers like Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern), Chen appeared committed to provocation and boldness.
The promise was not fulfilled. Despite the lush beauty of Temptress Moon and The Emperor and the Assassin, neither film was a hit, and both lacked coherence and focus. After making a dreadful English-language erotic thriller (Killing Me Softly), Chen returned to China to lick his wounds and seek inspiration.
Unfortunately, he did so by turning on the TV. There he saw an inspirational program about a young musician and Together was born, a sickly, multiple-hanky tale of the tension between country values and urban greed. Tang Yun is the 13-year-old violin prodigy whose peasant father, the hyperbolic Liu Peiqi, brings him to Beijing to find a teacher. With no money to pay for a fancy school, they resort to old-world Wang Zhiwen, whose cat-infested premises and eccentric behavior belie his prodigious teaching ability. The boy's attention is distracted by a happy hooker (Chen Hong, the director's wife)--though, this being a PG film, the lady's source of income is never made explicit.
This kind of squeamishness puts Together firmly on the foreign-but-cute shelf along with Cinema Paradiso and Chocolat. Using strained symbolism (who knew fresh-squeezed O.J. was so political?), Chen juxtaposes the traditional values of the old professor with the cold capitalism of post-Cultural Revolution China (in the person of a slick promoter played by the director himself), building to a tear-jerking finale of painful obviousness. At least Chocolat had Johnny Depp.