Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the most "human" character actors working in the busy today, which helps explain why he's been able to pull off so many distinctively different roles.

In "State and Main," Hoffman was a screenwriter whose frustrations were all too real. In "Magnolia," his gentle male nurse provided a needed emotional center. In "Almost Famous," his portrayal of legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs nearly stole the show.

But "Owning Mahowny" is one movie that eludes even Hoffman. Which is not to say that Hoffman's performance is in any way faulty or flawed. But the material he's working with is so spotty, so filled with distractions, that even he can't overcome them all.

That's a pity, because this dramatic thriller is based on an interesting real-life Canadian fraud case.

The title refers to Dan Mahowny (Hoffman), the assistant manager of a bank. Dan has a lot of things going for him, including a promising relationship with Belinda (Minnie Driver), a clerk at his bank. Unfortunately, he's also got a gambling bug. And he's got it bad.

As he continues to run up huge debts, Dan decides to begin siphoning off funds from one of the bank's largest account holders. Then he takes the money to Atlantic City, where he and

his stolen thousands are given the royal treatment. For awhile, he's actually up on the tables. But when his fortunes change, he's forced to embezzle even more to pay off his bookie (Maury Chaykin) and the casino manager (John Hurt).

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Among the film's bigger problems is the fact that it does such a poor job of convincing us this really takes place in the '80s. And why does director Richard Kwietniowski allow Driver to wear such a ridiculous wig and dental appliances, which make her look like one of Tracey Ullman's caricatures? Needless to say, it's hard to take any of her scenes seriously.

And as good as Hurt is, he almost seems to be acting in a different movie. Actually, it's the always solid Hoffman who should be in some other movie.

"Owning Mahowny" is rated R for scattered use of sexual profanity, brief female nudity and brief sex (shown on an adult video), and some off-color comments. Running time: 107 minutes.