Directed by Richard Kwietniowski. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Maury Chaykin, John Hurt, Sonja Smits. (2003, R, 107 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 20, 2003
Part cautionary tale, part psychological study, Owning Mahowny tells the 1982-set story of Dan Mahowny, a rising Toronto bank executive with a gambling addiction, who siphoned $10.2 million from his bank to feed his habit before he was inadvertently discovered through a wiretap set for his bookie. A true story, Owning Mahowny is fashioned from Gary Ross’ Stung, a book that detailed the trail of embezzlement and helped prompt precautionary changes in Canadian banking laws. The character of Mahowny (Hoffman) is different from any gambler we’ve seen in the movies before. His personality and mannerisms are extremely reserved, as befits a young banker off to a bright future. Even when he receives a promotion, he continues to drive his decade-old Dodge Dart and cautions his girlfriend Belinda (Driver) to think frugally. Mahowny is not the Jekyll-and-Hyde type of gambler we’re accustomed to seeing, a regular guy when away from the tables but a manic high-roller when betting. This is not a story about the high that comes from gambling, a grand failure of impulse control, or the lures of fast living. If it were, the character of Mahowny would seem almost sympathetic, a fallible human being rather than the perpetual sad sack he appears to be. As played by Hoffman (one of the best actors of our time), Mahowny is a rumpled young executive who derives no apparent pleasure from anything in his life – not his professional success, his adoring girlfriend, or his gambling coups. To the owner (Hurt) of the Atlantic City casino he frequents, Mahowny is the real deal, a pure gambler undistracted by the fancy perks offered him by the casino or by the rush of the game. Hurt, in his shiny silk suits, presides over his casino like the Devil in Hell, taking true pleasure in his patrons’ addiction and yelling "fucking headhunters" when the Las Vegas boys try to mooch in on his Mahowny action. Hurt, who paired so brilliantly with director Kwietniowski in Love and Death on Long Island, also amazes in Owning Mahowny; there’s potential here for these two to become one of the great actor/director combos of the cinema, like John Ford and John Wayne or Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. Indeed, all the performances here are great: Chaykin’s so slimy as the bookie, and Driver even triumphs as the glutton-for-punishment girlfriend in an unfortunately bad wig. Because the movie is a portrait of such a buttoned-down personality, viewers may find themselves anxious for more action than the movie provides. Even the dramatic structure the filmmakers apply to the story seems a minor attraction in this low-key affair. But that’s exactly the point of Owning Mahowny: to show us this character who derives few visible thrills from his thrills. This is how he survives for so long. He’s unnoticeable and trundles along until he, literally, runs out of gas. He slides past the bank’s system of checks and balances as he continues to pilfer greater and greater sums to cover his losses. In fact, the situation is not too far removed from that of Jayson Blair and The New York Times. The corporate oversight in place to catch deceptions is lulled into becoming part of the deception. Mahowny wanders through this film as if waiting to get caught, forced into deeper gambling debt because no one applies any brakes. As the character states early in the film, "It’s all about procedure. You just have to know your way around it." Too true.