Despite positive critical notice including a 4 star review from Roger Ebert who also listed it among 2003’s best films, Richard Kwietniowski’s OWNING MAHOWNY has been pretty overlooked in the decade since its release. I mean, if one thinks of Philip Seymour Hoffman in the early to mid Aughts, his roles in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE, 25TH HOUR, RED DRAGON, LOVE LIZA, and, of course, his real breakthrough CAPOTE will most likely will come to mind before his turn as the gambling addicted Canadian Dan Mahowny.
The character is based on Brian Molony, a clerk who embezzled millions from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce to fund his gambling habit in the early ‘80s. Hoffman’s portrayal of Mahowny is one of a well dressed schlub who appears to only be comfortable when he’s sitting at a table in a casino playing blackjack, baccarat, roulette, or craps.
As a Atlantic City casino manager who wants to take full advantage of Hoffman’s habit, John Hurt observes that Mahowny only has the one true vice: “No sex, no booze, no drugs…our little roller is a purist. All he cares about is the next hand.”
That’s certainly the case when it comes to Hoffman’s girlfriend, Minnie Driver in a bad blonde wig, who is kept in the dark about his addiction until he takes her to Las Vegas and she realizes that his purpose there isn’t to propose to her.
OWNING MAHOWNY is shelved next to Wayne Kramer’s THE COOLER in my mental movie database for a couple of obvious reasons: they’re gambling movies that came out the same year, and they both star guys who were in Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997). Both are also veterans of late ‘90s Coen Brothers’ movies (Hoffman in THE BIG LEBOWSKI; Macy in FARGO), which I bring up because Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard character in FARGO and Hoffman’s Mahowny have both gotten themselves entangled in huge financial problems. Macy isn’t a gambler in the gamer sense, but his poorly planned solutions involving his wife’s kidnapping and a sketchy real estate deal constitute some high stakes no matter which way you look at it.
However, Macy’s roles in FARGO and THE COOLER couldn’t be more different. His Lundegaaard is a conniving immoral jerk, while THE COOLER’s Bernie Lootz is a lovable yet extremely unlucky everyman. Hoffman would know immediately to steer clear of Macy the second his eyes fell upon him walking in the door of the fictional Shangri-La. Odds are that Alec Baldwin’s casino boss wouldn’t be as fascinated as Hurt is by Hoffman.
But let’s get back to the film in its own right. So as Hoffman’s Mahowny gets deeper and deeper into a hole, investigators are monitoring his every move. All the while Hoffman’s nonchalance and cold indifference to everything but the game is reflected in the cold sterile surroundings of the casinos and the bank’s board rooms. Thrown in the mix is Maury Chaykin in a great role as a sleazy bookie, who’s too stupefied by Hoffman’s business practices to resort to violence, even though he’s owed over 10 grand.
Mahowny never admits he has a gambling problem. “I have a…financial problem. A shortfall” is all he says about it when under interrogation. Hoffman well conveys the nature of a man who lives inside his head, taking his time to answer people’s questions in an aloof yet not awkward manner. The character could be seen as a comment on the unassuming, plainspoken personalities of Canadian gamblers, but the loneliness of this slave to the game is pure Hoffman,
OWNING MAHOWNY isn’t a masterpiece or even one of the best gambling movies out there, but it’s a well acted, neatly plotted, little sleeper that deserves a viewing. With its backdrop being that of the Canadian gambling industry we see the flashy side of the wheeling and dealing from behind the scenes where players are monitored by drably dressed men in charge. These elements are better seen as background fodder from one’s cozy safe home, rather than really experienced by risk takers in the raw.
Hoffman’s portrayal of Mahowny isn’t a star making turn or a revelation for the actor, but it’s a stepping stone of a role that led to greater heights – there’s little bit of the cold calculation of this character in his performance of the L. Ron Hubbard-ish Lancaster Dodd in last year’s misunderstood Paul Thomas Anderson epic THE MASTER for instance.
Hurt’s part as the on top of his game (and everyone else’s) casino kingpin is also pleasing, albeit in a very different tone and demeanor than Hoffman’s. It’s telling that the actor worked with writer/director Kwietniowski on the films LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND (1997) and REGRET NOT SPEAKING (2011) before and after this production. A solid working relationship appears to be on ample display here.
OWNING MAHOWNY is a different kind of gambling movie than the usual razzle dazzle – one that breaks down the obsessive methods behind putting everything on the line.