Dan Mahowny is a gray little man, meticulous, obsessive, and very careful with a dollar, even the ones in his native Canada. He is a man seemingly born to be a banker except for one little flaw, an addiction, actually. Dan is a man who likes to gamble, who has, in fact never gone more than a few days without placing a bet since he was a teenager. And as is the way with addictions, this one gets the better of him, leading this gray little man on an adventure of high-stakes and crashing falls.
Based on a true story, Richard Kwietniowski’s OWNING MAHOWNY eschews the usual trappings of gambling tales. There is no glamour, no glitz, and the gorgeous, willing babes are just an annoying distraction for our hero. There’s not even the seamy intrigue of a film noir. Instead, Kwietniowski focuses on something equally fascinating but much more difficult to capture, the addiction itself, how it compels, pushes, drags, and pummels its victim, even one such as Mahowny, who knows better. Of course, he also knows the banking system, so that when a debt to his nebbishy bookie (played with teddy bear sloppiness by Maury Chaykin) gets to be more than he can handle, it’s just a matter of knowing which form to fill out, who to hand it to, and, presto, debt gone. But, alas, not the compulsion that will lead him to the bright lights of Atlantic City and Las Vegas.
Between 1980 and 1982, the debt grew into the millions and even his banks internal auditors were taken in by the reasonable explanations Mahowny offered. No one could believe that this man with a cheap suit, banged-up briefcase, and a junker car was anything but the salt of the earth. That and a run of dumb luck, there’s just no other explanation, kept Mahowny riding high though, and this is the fascinating part, not happy. At least not for more than the turn of a card, the fall of some dice, or the spinning of a roulette wheel. Philip Seymour Hoffman, the hardest working actor today, or at least the most ubiquitous, once again seeps into his role here. As he plods through life, be it bank or casino or home with his live-in girlfriend, it is with his hands in his pockets, eyes on the floor, moving with a permanent slouch towards the next bet. It is only in that moment just before the card turns, the dice falls, the ball roosts in the roulette wheel that there is any flicker of emotion, one that is quickly subsumed until the next bet is placed. With Hoffman in the role, it’s no mystery why Mahowny is a man who can’t walk away when he’s a million dollars up or when his girlfriend (Minnie Driver) is waiting for him in their room wrapped in a frothy negligee. He plays the overwhelming monomania that doesn’t allow for any other emotion as a gentle introvert, eager to please, sorry for what he’s doing, but determined nonetheless. Kwietiowski uses a recurring motif of Mahowny sitting in his car at the airport, arriving from or leaving on his gambling trips. It’s his way station between his two radically different lives, and perfectly emblematic of his inner state as he sits quietly in the gray cold of an impersonal Toronto parking garage, lost and irretrievably alone.
John Hurt, as the brittle, unctuous casino manager who tries unsuccessfully to find a vice of Mahowny’s other than gambling and sauceless BBQ ribs to cater to, is wickedly smarmy. As for Driver, she’s blonde, bland and just a little bit bowlegged here, as she chirps along displaying little more than that quintessential Canadian virtue, niceness. This is strictly Hoffman’s film and with his anti-charisma and doughy body, he’s perfect for the part. Kwietniowski gives him free reign to internalize the role and in a turn as unexpected as it is brilliant, he makes boring interesting.