Now here's a movie I couldn't sit still to, a movie that made it difficult for me to remain in my seat. "Owning Mahowny" is a film about a pastime that is highly popular in America although rarely portrayed in the movies in its true light; gambling.
The film is based on the true story of a Toronto bank assistant-manager who stole money from his clients to pay off gambling debts that went beyond $10,000. He starts by taking the minimum, just enough to win twice as much so he can return the original amount before anyone notices. It would be no giveaway for me to tell you that Mahowny isn't the luckiest gambler, otherwise there would be no movie. To tell you how much he will eventually have "borrowed" from his unknowing clients would be, but I will tell you that it's an astonishing figure.
Dan Mahowny is played by one of my favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman. He makes Mahowny out to be pathetic, completely irrational and oblivious to his gambling addiction. He sweats when he starts losing, but to show any other signs of desperation would mean that he acknowledges his problem when he clearly doesn't.
He is dating a fabulous woman named Belinda (Minnie Driver), a girlfriend so wonderfully committed to Mahowny that inasmuch as we like the guy and want to sympathize with, we know she's too good for him. Many women would have walked out when their man has fallen this deeply into despair, but Belinda knows that he has a problem, and will first try to get him to realize it even though she is just a crutch for him; a person to go home to after a day of loosing thousands of dollars at the table. She is his only friend even though he doesn't treat her like one in return. At one point he takes her on a vacation to Las Vegas, but spends the entire time in the casino. Belinda observes a bride who recently wed that afternoon, and she has her own ambitions to get married, but Mahowny is simply not there. After all, Vegas wasn't a vacation or a romantic getaway, it was a change of venue from Atlantic City where he wasn't having any luck.
The Atlantic City casino manager, Victor Foss (John Hurt), would be the villain in this movie, but that title belongs to Mahowny's addiction, an entity on its own. Foss is fascinated by Mahowny, who expressionlessly gambles away his money without showing any remorse. Mahowny is known as the 'newcomer' because his identity to the casino staff is a mystery. They single him out as a high-roller even though it's not his money he's gambling with. Foss gives him Mahowny the best suite in the hotel, first-class dining, and a personal assistant named Bernie (Chris Collins) who later becomes the ignored voice of reason. Foss' only goal is to keep Mahowny in his casino as long as possible and to rob him of every penny. By pampering him, the idea is that Mahowny will have little desire to leave.
Amazingly, Mahowny's luck changes in Atlantic City and finds himself up millions! The pit-bosses are shocked and Foss can only stare in disbelief. But the question is: Will Mahoney stop and leave with his winnings (in the high millions) or continue to gamble until he loses it all? At this point in the film the suspense was so high that my fingers were grinding into the armrests.
Admittedly, I am fascinated by gambling. Whenever I'm on a cruise I can't help but play a few hands of Blackjack as the ship cuts through the international waters. Casino games are exciting, and anyone who's gambled before knows just how hard it is to get out of that chair, and to get the hand off the lever. "Owning Mahowny" is one of the few films on gambling that capture the raw addictions. We pound our fists into our heads because Mahowny doesn't understand the damage he's doing; he doesn't understand he has a girlfriend worth giving up the game for.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is simply amazing as Mahowny. His actions are crafty and only speaks when he needs something. He is always adjusting his glasses, massaging his temples, and walks with his head down. He never shows any emotion, even when he's up, big. He is so convincing that I can't imagine the real Mahoney looking any different than Hoffman.
Another great thing about the movie is that Mahowny isn't the only character worth studying. His bookie (Maury Chaykin) at one point tries to get him to slow down, because--well frankly--Mahowny is a destructive gambler. At one point he is so rushed for an appointment that he doesn't have the time to strategize his wagers and simply bets $1,000 on all the home teams in the National League and all the away teams in the American. The bookie is unhappy with this practice even though he is almost guaranteed Mahowny's money after such a reckless bet is placed.
I also like Bernie, Mahowny's assistant who is assigned to cater to his every need. Bernie has seen people like Mahowny one too many times and even tries to convince him to stop gambling when he's ahead. Such non-profiting advice could easily get an employee fired because the casino wants Mahowny's money, and they will not be satisfied until they have it all.
There are a lot of things to look forward to in the film: Will Belinda stay with Mahowny? Will he be caught and prosecuted for stealing money from the bank? Will he end up with more money than he stole? Some of these questions are more easy to guess than others, but the big one is: Will Mahowny ever learn his lesson?