Rising young bank manager Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a quiet guy who is shy, even with his girlfriend Belinda (Minnie Driver). He is also a hard working and likeable executive on the rise, given access to a multi-million dollar account for an established client of the bank's. Which is only bad because he is a compulsive gambler. Based on the largest one-man bank fraud in Canadian history, in which a banker used up over $10 million in gambling splurges, mostly in the Atlantic City casino run by Victor Foss (John Hurt), and in Las Vegas.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
As many films as there are about obsessive gamblers, Owning Mahowny stands out for its central performance by a sensational Philip Seymour Hoffman - or rather, an unsensational performance that is a marvel of stillness and depth, drawing us in to its black hole. The black hole is his addiction to gambling, an obsession he pursues with a fervour close to religious fundamentalism.
Indeed, casino boss Victor Foss, curtly but satisfyingly played by the great English actor John Hurt, remarks about Dan Mahowny while watching him playing at a table via the casino's security cameras: "He's a purist. A thoroughbred. I love him." As indeed he should, with Mahowny returning with ever larger bundles of cash to begin the cycle of winning and losing. He doesn't eat, drink, take drugs - and hardly even sleeps, as he concentrates on the gamble.
He doesn't even seem to enjoy it - well, one doesn't actually enjoy losing - but we later learn during a session with a psychiatrist that he rates the thrill of gambling at 100, and the next highest thrill in his life scores 20.
The screenplay focuses on Mahowney's compulsion, and its devastating effects on his life and his relationship. His commitment is total and absolute - to gambling, not to Belinda.
Hoffman gives his character an intensity softened only by occasional flickers of a smile, or a moment of desperation in which he takes stock of his situation in a darkly reflective stillness. Throughout his descent from the first fraudulent loan to himself via a fantasy new customer of just $10,300 - the exact amount he owes trackside bookie Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin) - to the final loss of millions at craps and blackjack, Dan Mahowny continues to reject and deny Belinda's suggestion that he has a gambling problem. "I don't have a gambling problem....I have a financial problem."
Well, that too.
The film is successful in bringing us into Dan's world, which is why it's so engaging. We don't really understand him, but we recognise his problem, as well as some of his other attributes, such as his relative banking charm and ability. What's the most effective, though, is Hoffman's ability to show us that beneath his unmanageable gambling weakness lies a decent, desperate soul.
Review by Louise Keller:
The story of a secret life made public, Owning Mahowny is a story about a man obsessed. Obsessed with gambling. Nondescript assistant bank manager Dan Mahowny does not gamble for material gain, but because he has been sucked into the compulsion of gambling itself. When he sets up his first fake bank loan, it is for the exact amount of his gambling debt - to the dollar. So Mahowny begins by being behind, and although he professes the only lady he needs is Lady Luck, in fact, his loyal, selfless girlfriend Belinda becomes his salvation.
Director Richard Kwietniowski has opted to tell the story unsympathetically, so although we may not particularly like the quietly gawkish, stocky young man with the shy manner and shifty eyes that never connect, we feel connected. He cannot help himself. 'That's all I need - one really good weekend,' he mutters, and we know exactly what he means.
Philip Seymour Hoffman skillfully submerges himself into Mahowny's persona, challenging us to fathom the unfathomable. Hoffman uses his stillness to great effect. There are moments when we feel as though we can hear the cogs of his brain ticking slowly and deliberately, as he tries to think on his feet and stay calm. He is a victim to his own addiction.
John Hurt's callous Atlantic City casino operator takes us into the backrooms when we view Mahowny's plight from a different angle. Now he is a sucker. Big time. We watch Victor Foss' eyes glisten with excitement as he sets Mahowny up for the kill. We are there for the ride - the lavish suites, the connection with 'Rib Guy' Bernie (who knows how Mahowny likes to eat his ribs), the phone tapping and the dubious associates - as the net slowly but surely starts to close. When Mahowny takes Minnie Driver's empathetic Belinda to Vegas before forgetting about her in the room while she waits for what she imagines they are doing there ('Isn't that what normal people do in Vegas - get married?'), it ends badly. There is resonance in the words of the stranger on the plane, who says to Belinda 'Everybody loses in Vegas'. Mahowny is a lost soul. Even stripped naked in the shower, when Belinda pleads he admit his gambling problem, he has sunk too deep under the mask of denial.
Owning Mahowny effortlessly conveys desperation. It is a fascinating story and our interest never abates. We lurch from the isolation of Mahowny's desk at the bank to the loneliness of a black-jack table devoid of chips. Even the crowd that is cheering him on as his momentary winning streak comes to an abrupt end can't bear to look. I feel the same.
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OWNING MAHOWNY (M)
CAST: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Minnie Driver, John Hurt, Maury Chaykin, Ian Tracey, Sonja Smits,Chris Collins, Jason Blicker
PRODUCER: Alessandro Camon, Andras Hamori, Seaton McLean
DIRECTOR: Richard Kwietniowski
SCRIPT: Maurice Chauvet (book by Gary Stephen Ross)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Oliver Curtis
EDITOR: Mike Munn
MUSIC: Richard Grassby-Lewis, The Insects
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Taavor Soodor
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sharmill
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 1, 2004
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
VIDEO RELEASE: October 13, 2004
RIVERSIDE SNEAK PEEK PREMIERES
A program of premiere screenings of new movies prior to their commercial release
on 4 consecutive Tuesdays - March 10, 17, 24, 31, 2015 - at Riverside Theatre,
Curated & presented by Andrew L. Urban, discussion to
follow with special guests. Briefing notes provided.