Atlantic City: land of dreams tried, dreams failed

A scene from “The Dunning Man.”

By Mike Houlihan

We chose Kevin Fortuna’s new film “The Dunning Man” to open our 3rd Annual Irish-American Movie Hooley in Chicago at the end of next week. Though it’s the work of a first-time filmmaker, Fortuna’s flick bears the confident Irish swagger of a great storyteller. But what’s with that last name, Fortuna?

“My mother is an Irish citizen, and her family hails from Cobh, Co. Cork,” said the New York City-based writer.

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I’ll attest to his Irish bona fides as well, because with this film he has created a memorable young Irish-American character, Connor Ryan, who fights almost overwhelming odds to discover a better version of himself. And Fortuna pulls it off in a very funny, scary, and sexy love story.

The film is based on the lead story in Fortuna’s celebrated short story collection that Esquire lauded in 2014, calling “The Dunning Man” a "funny, explosive, and disarmingly moving" story about "people like you and me."

I was sold on the film as I watched a huge, snarling Russian gangster with a bullwhip in one hand, wrapping his other hairy mitt around Connor Ryan’s throat trying to get what he wants and Connor snarls back at him, “I’m Irish. You have no idea how stubborn I can be!”

Fortuna’s personal story is cinematic as well. He left the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of New Orleans in 1995 to go build high-tech startups, made a boatload of dough, and returned 13 years later to finish school. Sounds like Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School.”

But unlike Rodney, Kevin got respect, turned his thesis into the critically acclaimed story collection story, financed his film and hired his old buddy, high-school literature teacher Michael Clayton, to write and direct the screenplay based on the lead story, which everyone kept telling him, “this is a movie.”

It is now, we believe, a classic Irish-American movie.

Kevin Fortuna.

Clayton has done a masterful job of opening up the story for the screen and delivering a powerful punch to an already affable yarn. Fortuna told me, “Michael Clayton is a genius.”

I’d say they both are.

“The Dunning Man” takes place in Atlantic City, where Connor is clinging to some old real estate trying to survive with whack-job tenants trying to kill him, a rap mogul on sabbatical with his harem of groupies, and a single mom who moonlights as a dealer at the casino next door, who steals his heart.

When Fortuna signed up his friend Clayton to write the script, he took him to Atlantic City for a weekend, to meet his uncle Harry Sweeney, a legendary Atlantic City character, who took the lads on a tour of all his old haunts.

Fortuna said, “Atlantic City is a weird place, it’s a land of dreams tried and dreams failed.”

“AC” as they refer to it, becomes a character in itself in this stunning first feature, and Fortuna, who personally managed all aspects of the film’s post-production and editing, takes us back to the halcyon days of the gambler’s paradise with spectacular archival footage of those bad old days.

Harry Sweeney inspired a key character in the film, as Uncle Bishop, an older mentor who took Connor under his wing when his folks died, and tries to steer him clear of the bad guys who seem to be around every corner in “The Dunning Man.”

Director Clayton speculates on this earnest Irish-American lad’s journey in the film, Connor keeps trying to do the right thing but the world keeps getting in the way. “Being the good guy is harder, it always is.”

The same thing might be said for his old friend, writer Kevin Fortuna. He’s squeezed between the tech industry and show biz. He told me: “The worlds collide sometime, and it’s very uncomfortable for me.”

But he continues trying to do the right thing. For almost a decade Kevin Fortuna has served on the board of the Concern Worldwide US, the American division of the Irish-born international humanitarian organization that works to transform the lives of the world's poorest people (

How Irish is that?

“The Dunning Man” has its Chicago premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center on next Friday, Sept. 29. Please join us!