Owning Mahowny (Canada/United States/United Kingdom, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Owning Mahowny casts an unflinching gaze into a window of addiction of a sort not often portrayed in movies. Based on the true-life book "Stung" by Gary Stephen Ross, the film chronicles the facts of the case of a Toronto bank vice president who stole more than $10 million from his employer over a two-year period in the early 1980s. All of that money funded his expanding gambling addiction, ending up in the pockets of bookies and the vaults of casinos. In Owning Mahowny, by the time the lead character is caught, the concept of losing (or winning) $1,000,000 in one night is acceptable.

But Owning Mahowny isn't really about how the police closed the noose around the man's neck. Instead, it's a character study and an examination of addiction. The two go hand-in-hand. In order to understand Dan Mahowny (played brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman), you have to come to grips with his addiction, and vice versa. The two are inseparable. For Mahowny, gambling isn't a diversion, a passion, or even an obsession. It is a necessity. He cannot survive without it. When a psychologist asks him to quantify, on a scale of 1 to 100, what the most excitement he has ever had gambling is, he responds "100." When asked the same question about excitement away from gambling, he replies "20."

Owning Mahowny is not a feel-good story about one man's ability to overcome addiction. Instead, it illustrates a deepening spiral of compulsive behavior, withdrawl from society, and denial. In this case, gambling is the root cause, but the same movie could be made about a man caught in the grip of drugs, alchohol, sex, or anything else. For Mahowny, gambling isn't about winning or losing. Those things are incidental, as is the money needed to play. The high and the need are about playing the game and taking the risk. Winnings are merely ways to prolong the experience. In the end, everything will be lost - it's just a matter of how long it takes.

The film opens with Mahowny in debt for $10,300 to a local bookie, Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin). When he learns that he is being cut off until he can pay back the money, Mahowny becomes desperate. So he starts fudging accounts and creating fake loan applications. Soon, he has access to a nearly endless line of credit - enough to fund expensive binges, trips to Atlantic City and Las Vegas, and to wager on nearly every sporting event taking place in North America. ("Bet on all the home teams in the National League and all the away teams in the American League," he says at one point.) His gambling has driven a rift between him and his mousy girlfriend, Belinda (Minnie Driver). When he spends all of their "romantic" weekend in Vegas at the tables rather than with her, she realizes the seriousness of his problem. At work, no one seems to figure out what is happening. His bosses are pleased with his work ethic and he even passes an audit.

The film also offers some degree of insight into the insidious things that casinos do to appease their high rollers and keep the money flowing. The windows are tinted so it looks gray and unappealing outside. Oxygen is pumped in to create a high. Rooms, drinks, food, shows, and prostitutes are on the house. The spider at the center of the Atlantic City web ensnaring Mahowny is Victor Foss (John Hurt), who has all the charm of a snake oil salesman. He's a predator, and Mahowny realizes it, but doesn't care. At first, Victor fails to notice Mahowny, but, when his losses cross into the six-figure range, things change. Soon, Victor is wooing Mahowny with countless amenities, but the gambler turns down a woman and barely notices the bigger suite with three washrooms. All he wants are some ribs (without sauce) and a Coke. Victor is delighted. "A purist!" he exults.

Central to the film's success is the quality of acting. The role of Dan Mahowny is a standout from Philip Seymour Hoffman, best known to date for his scene-stealing supporting performances in Paul Thomas Anderson movies (those guys with two first names have to stick together). As was true last year in a pair of independent features, The Good Girl and One Hour Photo, a forceful and uncompromising portrayal by the lead actor can elevate the project from intriguing to compelling. That's what happens here. Hoffman, dressed like a slob and looking like a nerd, draws us into Mahowny's single-mindedness and shows the world through the character's tunnel vision. Even for those who admired Hoffman beforehand, this is a revelation.

In view of Hoffman's dominating performance, there isn't much room for the other actors. John Hurt (who starred in director Richard Kwietniowski's Love and Death on Long Island) offers a deliciously reptilian turn as the casino director who wants to squeeze every last cent out of Mahowny. There's a wonderful scene in which Victor's boss approaches him during a Mahowny winning streak and warns him that the casino could be in trouble. "Come back to me at 4 a.m. and ask me how we're doing," he advises with the confidence of one who understands the mindset of his prey. While Hurt makes the most of limited screen time, the same cannot be said of Minnie Driver, who is underutilized in an underwritten part.

Movies about men caught in the grip of an addiction are never pleasant to watch. But they are powerful and often instructive. Owning Mahowny is such a motion picture. It works for two reasons: (1) it understands the nature and patterns of addiction and doesn't try to blunt or soften them to appeal to an audience, and (2) it doesn't cop out with a happy ending. Add to that a brilliant performance by Hoffman, and you have a motion picture that never ceases to be worthwhile.

Owning Mahowny (Canada/United States/United Kingdom, 2003)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2003-05-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1