- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

The lead character in “Owning Mahowny” is a gambler who won’t be satisfied until his checking account goes bust. That Dan Mahowny works for a bank — and has access to millions — gives this true story its ace in the hole.

The absorbing “Owning Mahowny” serves not so much as a cautionary tale as a grim portrait of addiction.

And who better to inhabit the rumpled clothes of a gambler than Philip Seymour Hoffman?

The insightful actor, his fingers constantly readjusting his glasses, gives Dan the weary presence the role demands.

Director Richard Kwietniowski (1997’s “Love and Death on Long Island”) captures the sweaty euphoria that takes over a gambler, leaving all other earthly pleasures by the wayside.

Set in Toronto during the early 1980s, “Mahowny” opens with Dan driving a deathtrap of a car to his bank job. He may be the company’s youngest assistant manager, but he can’t afford a new suit, let alone a new set of wheels. He would rather spend every dime he has at the track.

Until now, he has been able to manage his gambling debts — and keep his girlfriend Belinda (Minnie Driver) in the dark about his habit.

Now, even his bookie won’t take his calls until he can square away the $10,000 he owes.

“What am I supposed to do, go to the racetrack and watch?” Dan asks the bookie.

Desperate, Dan siphons money out of the account of one of his clients. Then he’s off to Atlantic City, where he quickly gambles it away.

Undeterred, he steals more and more, all the while dodging inquiries at work and Belinda’s growing suspicions.

A winning streak that might have let him off the hook simply delays the inevitable. A gambler like Dan won’t stop until he has lost everything.

“Owning Mahowny” grabs us even though the ending is never in doubt.

Mr. Hoffman, with his dirty-blond moustache and stiff gait, makes it hard to rally support for Dan. He clearly isn’t malicious, but his ability to deflect Belinda’s pleas for help is chilling. That Dan can summon enough personality to wiggle his way out of one predicament atop another only deepens our ambivalence.

Worse, he gets little joy out of gambling. When the dice roll his way, he lets himself chuckle softly but doesn’t appear to be satisfied with his good fortune.

Belinda stands by Dan’s side while he spirals into debt and despair. She goes from denial to commitment to learn more about addiction — but her support never wavers.

Miss Driver has the unpleasant task of both looking respectable under a bad wig and making the patient-girlfriend role credible. She does neither well. Her natural British accent pokes through on a few occasions, but it’s hard to imagine any actress rendering Belinda as a full-bodied character as written. The fictionalization of her romance with Dan simply doesn’t fly on-screen even though the tale being told is true.

Mr. Kwietniowski doesn’t sucker punch us with the depravity associated with gambling. He lets us look in on the gorgeous perks offered to the highest rollers, and Atlantic City isn’t painted in gruesome tones, which the director easily could have done.

Gambling is a solitary pursuit, yet the film is shot and seen from many angles. We watch Dan through the eyes of his girlfriend, his puzzled co-workers and the security cameras constantly keeping tabs on every movement on the casino floor.

If the film has an agenda, it’s against the agents of the gambling world, particularly Atlantic City’s operators. It’s hard to say how much truth is poured into its account of how the gambling mecca operates, but clearly the man in charge, portrayed with an evil glint by John Hurt, is played without much dimension. Still, Mr. Hurt is an electric villain, compulsively watchable amid the shrillness.

The system cruelly exploits Dan’s weaknesses, down to his love of greasy food. Casino workers aren’t permitted to interrupt him when the gamblers are losing, and one worker casually reveals how the casino windows are tinted so gamblers won’t be tempted by any sunny days.

“Owning Mahowny” doesn’t bother itself with the details of Dan’s redemption. The darker, more illuminating story involves how a man with an otherwise full life gambles it all away.

***

TITLE: “Owning Mahowny”

RATING: R (Strong language, a scene involving a prostitute)

CREDITS: Directed by Richard Kwietniowski, written by Maurice Chauvet

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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