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October 24, 2015

Owning Mahowny

by Franz Patrick


Owning Mahowny (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★

Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a gambling problem—and that is an understatement. Promoted by his superiors to assistant branch manager of the bank for excellent record and judgment, little do they know that Mahowny owes over ten thousand dollars and has been using money from clients to sustain his addiction to gambling. Meanwhile, the police begin to suspect that Mahowny, a man who earns just about twenty-two thousand Canadian dollars annually, might be involved with selling drugs. After all, where does he get all the money to frequent casinos?

Based on a true story that happened between 1980 and 1982, “Owning Mahowny,” directed by Richard Kwietniowski, takes a magnifying glass onto the life of a man who has no control over his need to gamble. Although a dramatic picture, it reaches a balance of humor and suspense, from the characters who are convinced they understand what the man is all about to the authorities about to discover that a seemingly ordinary man is committing all sorts of crimes behind their backs. Hoffman plays his character with magnetic intensity.

We feel the gravity of the scene when Mahowny is sitting at the casino table. A person may know nothing about card games and the like, but the picture remains engaging because the camera focuses on Hoffman’s determined and desperate facial expressions as well as dejected body languages—without relying on showing the cards of a given play. The scene unfolds, camera still sticking to the character, and we feel that once Mahowny starts losing thousands of dollars, there is little hope of getting them back.

Less effective are scenes between Mahowny and his girlfriend, Belinda (Minnie Driver). There are many expected scenes in the latter first not being aware of the former’s gambling addiction and then discovering it. Although Driver does the best she can with a predictable role, there is little excitement or intrigue in the relationship. One might argue that perhaps that is the point—that Mahowny is seeking thrills somewhere else. But it would have been nice to get an idea as to why Belinda, after everything she learns eventually, chooses to remain in a relationship with Mahowny.

More compelling is Victor Foss, a casino manager (John Hurt) in Atlantic City, a place that Mahowny visits quite often. Foss’ greed is highlighted by the way Hurt engineers to look at Mahowny, like a vulture setting its sight on a dying prey. Scenes that take place in the casino could have been straight forward, but there is humor because of the performances as well as the variation of characters that choose to come along with the main character—often under false pretenses.

The detective subplot goes nowhere even though it is a necessary ingredient which inevitably leads to an arrest. Ian Tracey plays Detective Lock with a level of intensity but there is very little convincing and impressive investigation. It gives the impression that things are falling into place for the cops quite randomly and I found that the subplot obstructs the pacing at times that it becomes frustrating to sit through.

Still, “Owning Mahowny,” based on a book by Gary Stephen Ross and screenplay by Maurice Chauvet, is worth seeing because although the film offers humor and suspense, there is always an underlying sadness just below the surface. Although Mahowny is a liar and thief, we feel bad for him because Hoffman successfully communicates that his character has a disease and is in need of serious help. Before getting therapy, however, he needs to get caught. It might be the only way to turn his life around.

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