' Cinema Romantico: Owning Mahowny

Monday, February 10, 2014

Owning Mahowny

There is a specious scene at the tail-end of “Owning Mahoney” (2003), existing only to sledgehammer us with analytical explanation, in which our protagonist, the Dan Mahowny of the title, a compulsive gambler, is asked whether he has ever felt as high on the rest of his life as he has on gambling. He says no. Well, if this is true, no compulsive gambler, as demonstrated in the previous one-hundred minutes, has ever had less fun betting away a small fortune.

The recent “Wolf of Wall Street”, for instance, fell under intense fire for glamorizing addiction and thievery. This critic did not subscribe to said notion because this critic failed to see how crawling down stairs and across the pavement on account of loss of motor function while foaming at the mouth on account of popping too many Quaaludes is glamorous, but never mind. Anyone who took umbrage to Martin Scorsese’s opus for beautifying debauchery would be well advised to seek out “Owning Mahowny” as counter-programming, a far more dour portrait of the sway and awfulness of addiction. This is a joy-free zone.


As the film opens, Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is named assistant manager at a Toronto bank, a trusted employee who upon gaining that trust almost instantly begins exploiting it, embezzling chunks of money to fund his gambling habit. On a weekend jaunt to Atlantic City, the camera catches sight of a foreign high-roller, greeted by the unctuous casino manager (John Hurt), and what quickly becomes clear is how little interest Mahowny has in following in those particular footsteps. He takes no free drinks, turns down a free prostitute and doesn’t even want sauce on his free barbecue ribs. He likes his cheap suits and his clunky car just fine. All he wants to do is gamble.

Yet, we see so little gambling. The film becomes nearly as interested in Mahowny’s illegal schemes, shockingly simple, sitting in his corner office and drawing up fake loans and forging signatures. He gets checked up on, kinda, but no one seems interested in digging too deep, not even the auditors. Eventually the FBI stumbles into the midst of his scheme, a development handled in a perfunctory manner, as if director Richard Kwietniowski barely yearned to deal with it.

The film is like “Shame” but without the shock value. Or the sex. Mahwony has a fiancé (Minnie Driver) but I think a case could be made that they have never slept together – or, if they have, neither one them enjoyed it, denied it, and have never discussed it again. The script never makes clear why she loves (and that’s the word she uses – “love”) this schlub in the first place, except that maybe she’s as desperate as him. And as desperate as the casino is to abscond with Mahowny’s money. A subplot involves the way in which the casino aims to keep big-spenders spending so that they always go in the red, which Mahowny always does because he just can’t help himself. Whatever thrill he may obtain from garnering winnings is internalized, if it exists at all. When he calls his bookie (Maury Chakin), he rattles off sports bets in an desperately automated tone, the who and what and where of no importance.

This is a grimy rabbit hole away from reality, a character study of addiction, and as such it was difficult to absorb in the wake of recent events. You wonder why Hoffman took this role. Because he knew it, inside and out? Because he wanted to purge something? That’s mindless psycho-babble. What is clear is the preciseness of Hoffman’s performance, a self-disgust radiating off him in waves, a hunched-over walk forever underscoring the way in which he doesn’t want anyone knowing his “personal business.” And what is his personal business? Any time anyone calls him a gambling addict, he corrects them. “I have a financial problem,” he explains. In other words, because he is financially bereft, he has to steal money in order to gamble that money to make money for himself. Except that’s not really what we wants to do.

The addict’s subconscious wants to lose it all, and hell be damn sure he will. The character on whom Dan Mahowny was based served his time and apparently straightened out his life. The film barely acknowledges this real-life happy ending, plunking it down in a closing credit. Perhaps because the film knows this happy ending is all too rare.

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