January 16, 2004 -- “Owning Mahowny” is a film based on a true story of a man who has a gambling addition of monumental proportions. He goes to unbelievable lengths deny it and cover it up, carrying on a secret life as long as he possibly can before the inevitable collapse of his house of cards.
Dan Mahowny (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman of “Cold Mountain”) is a successful bank official in Toronto in 1982. He has a gambling addiction, but he is keeping it under control, barely. He has recently been promoted to vice president, the youngest ever at his bank, and he has a great girlfriend, Belinda (Minnie Driver of “Return to Me”). The two are even talking about marriage. Unbeknowst to everyone, however, Mahowny is on the skids and he is about to hit bottom. His bookie, Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin of “Mystery, Alaska”) wants Mahowny to pay what he owes him. Mahowny decides to embezzle the money from the bank, where he has access to a large trust fund. This big step greases Mahowny's skids. He begins to embezzle large amounts of money, hoping to win back what he has stolen. He becomes a high roller in Atlantic City and Las Vegas casinos. Instead of panic, Mahowny feels excitement from this high stakes risk.
Casino manager Victor Foss (John Hurt of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone”) takes note of Mahowny's gambling addiction and greases the skids even more, putting Mahowny up in a luxury hotel suite and facilitating Mahowny's illegal money transactions. The film provides an interesting look behind the scenes at casinos and how they provide the right environment for high rollers to lose as much money as possible. Foss erupts with sudden anger in one scene when he finds Mahowny has abandoned his Atlantic City casino for another in Las Vegas. Just as suddenly, his anger turns to joy when he finds that Mahowny has won big in Las Vegas and he has transferred funds back to Atlantic City for his next trip. Foss watches Mahowny on casino TV monitors and plots his next move to separate Mahowny from his mysterious wealth. Various strategies are used by Foss to keep Mahowny hooked, including plush accommodations, personal assistants, food, sex other inducements. To Foss' amazement, Mahowny isn't interested in any of these distractions. He is only interested in gambling.
Mahowny is in deep denial about his addiction. Instead, he says he has a financial problem, not a gambling problem. It is just a shortfall, albeit a multimillion dollar one. Hoffman does his usual fine job of acting in the lead role of Mahowny, but it is kind of a one-note performance. Mahowny's excitement at winning, or his depression about losing, look pretty much the same. Inside, he confesses in one scene, gambling is very exciting for him. He can find nothing else in his life that remotely approaches the high he gets from gambling. His face never shows this excitement, however, so we have to take his word for it. Gambling is not glamorized in this movie, directed by Richard Kwietniowski (“Love and Death on Long Island”). The casino scenes are as subdued as Hoffman's expressionless face. The result is a movie that is very flat.
What makes the story interesting is how Mahowny is able to fool so many people and how he keeps the decption going for so long. He is able to fool his girlfriend, his friends, his bosses, even the bank examiner. He even fools himself into thinking he has no gambling problem, even as it destroys his career and lands him in prison. This is the fascinating thing about the movie, how Mahowny marches off to his doom, totally distracted from his fate by the thrill of gambling. The other remarkable thing about the story is how Belinda sticks by him, even as he ruins his life. This shows that Mahowny was truly lucky, after all, in the only way that really matters. This movie rates a B.
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