Meet Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman). His life is looking up. He’s just got a promotion to entry-level bank management and he and his girlfriend (Minnie Driver) are starting to discuss wedding bells and beyond. Meet the other Dan Mahowny. He’s a compulsive gambler who uses his now powerful signature to swindle his employer into funding his obsession with Atlantic City and all of its card and dice wonders. Both Mahowny’s are the same person, just different ends of a sad and pathetic personality. Based on the story of a Toronto banker, Richard Kwietniowski’s Owning Mahowny is a fascinating and often spot-on look at the dark world of gambling addiction.
It’s nice to see that Hoffman is finally getting more leading roles, even if they are in small films such as this. Hoffman has made a career thus far out of playing desperate and pathetic losers. Mahowny is the most pathetic and desperate of them all. Let’s face it, part of Hoffman’s appeal is that he’s the antithesis to Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. He’s not attractive in a good-looks kind of way. He’s a real guy and the Kwietniowski wouldn’t want it any other way. Security cameras are shown throughout the film zooming in on Hoffman’s blemishes. He’s shown in bed where nothing but a pair of white tighties. Mahowny is a vulnerable man. He’s not slick and it’s impossible for him to play it cool like the entire crew of Ocean’s 11.
Because of his average looks, my guess is that Mahowny hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in his lifetime. He just blends in with the rest of the crowd. But Mahowny wants to be noticed. He wants people to turn their heads and at least acknowledge his presence. During his first visit to Atlantic City, Mahowny is stopped momentarily by security guards as a high roller was escorted by to his own private table. He stands at the back of the crowd watching others win at craps. Mahowny can’t even get attention from the casino’s Big Brother vulture cams. Mahowny wants to get noticed. He wants to be the man of the moment; he wants to be watched. But in the gambling world, in order to get noticed you have to lose. Lose big. And often.
The film takes place firmly in the midst of the 1980’s, not the prettiest of decades. Kwietniowski does a good job of showing this literally and figuratively. He uses every chance he gets to showcase some of the most hideous of kitsch items. From apartment furnishings to hotel decor to a throwaway shot of the Rubix Cube, the period is never in doubt. And let’s not forget Driver’s frumpy outfits and awful wig. But when your film’s biggest problem is a supporting character’s hair, things can’t be all that bad.
But there’s another part of the 1980’s that Kwietniowski explores that has nothing to do with pop culture but rather corporate culture. It’s easy to see Mahowny as wrong in the eyes of the law. But he’s sympathetic when compared to his fellow bank managers. They’ve made careers out of taking advantage of people. The bank’s bottom line is all that matters to them and it doesn’t matter whom they destroy in the process. The only difference between Mahowny and his bosses is a matter of attitude. They’re all thieves but in different ways. Kwietnioski is making an indictment on Reagan-era greed, something that is becoming increasingly common in today’s movies. It’s not anything new, but it’s more relevant today than ever in light of Enron, WorldCom and the ever-growing list of corporate hoodwinks and book cooking that are just now coming to light.
For anyone who has ever had a problem with gambling, they are bound to see a part of themselves in Mahowny. One of the film’s greatest strengths, particularly in the first two acts, is Kwietniowski’s ability to capture the frenetic obsession that strikes all gambling addicts. The lasting need for one last game. The mindset that luck will turn around. The inability to cut one’s losses and just go home. They’re all there and ready to make you feel dirty.
Owning Mahowny isn’t the kind of film that leaves you with a happy feeling. It leaves a knot in your stomach. It’s emotionally draining to watch Mahowny go through the ringer. But that’s the point. It’s an honest look at gambling. Anything less would be a slap to the real-life Mahowny’s face and a turn on the viewer.
Owning Mahowny Gallery