“You know why he wants to win? So he has the money to keep losing. Now how – – – – – – up is that?”
A bookie said this about Dan Mahowny, who was masterfully played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Owning Mahowny. That single segment of dialogue tells you everything you need to know about the main character, who is, indeed, a very sick man.
The 2003 film had an estimated $10 million budget (according to imdb.com), but grossed just over $1 million in the United States. I have a feeling, however, that this movie will start to find its audience and have a healthier afterlife in DVD.
The film is based on a true story and was adapted from the book Stung: The Incredible Obsession of Brian Molony, written by Gary Stephen Ross. In the film, Dan Mahowny was a precocious star at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Toronto’s financial district, and at 24 was the youngest assistant manager in company history. His girlfriend, a blonde Minnie Driver, was believable as a naïve hayseed who was quick (at least for a while) to buy into her boyfriend’s excuses for his long absences. Even she, however, didn’t know the other side of Dan Mahowny, the seemingly conservative banker who pulled off the largest single-handed bank fraud in Canadian history, grossing over $10 million in 18 months to feed his gambling obsession.
Early in the film, after Hoffman arranges a loan for a female customer, she expresses her gratitude and then playfully taps him on the stomach and says, “One of these days I’m going to take you out and get you a decent suit.” Combined with his beat-up car, it’s clear that Hoffman doesn’t care about money, which makes his gambling all the more puzzling — at least to those who haven’t been around compulsive gamblers.
When Hoffman is on another Bola88 gambling bender in Atlantic City, the casino host is astounded by his single-mindedness. Hoffman refuses hookers, drugs, alcohol, and lavish meals. Whether it’s blackjack, craps, or baccarat (sorry, but there’s no poker in this film), he simply can’t pull himself away from the pit.
I found the movie to be disturbing and tough to watch at times, which is a credit to the filmmakers. Screenwriter Maurice Chauvet and Director Richard Kwietniowski created a film that vividly portrays the sickness of compulsive gambling. Hoffman plays craps with a young Asian woman who throws her hands in the air when she hits her number. The next time Hoffman sees her, she is flirting with him, talking about what a great run they had, and then she says, “Say, stake me two hundred and I’ll share my winnings with you.” After her last desperate plea is refused, the camera stays on her to show the desperation oozing out of her skin. Equally disturbing is the casino host who is obsessed with seeing that Hoffman walks out broke. His behavior is excusable — you can’t fault a good manager for wanting to improve his company’s bottom line — and it accurately portrays the business side of running a casino. If you think casinos want their customers to be entertained and not get hurt, the next time you’re pouring over one of those “gaming” company annual reports, remind me to tell you about this great bridge I’ve got for sale.
The film reminded me of The Gambler, the 1974 film in which James Caan plays a literature professor who is also a compulsive gambler. Of course, if you’ve been around compulsive gamblers, the behavior of the characters in both films is very predictable — lying, borrowing, and betting because of the need for action.
Nick the Greek was famous for saying that the best thing for a gambler is to win, and the second-best thing is to lose. It’s sad but true. And as you watch this film, it’s hard not to ask yourself: What is the goal of the gambler? Clearly, it’s not the money, because Hoffman had no material needs and could steal all he wants from his bank. And without getting overly Freudian here, the goal seems to be self-punishment. How else could you describe it?
My one disappointment in the film is that you meet Dan Mahowny as a 24-year-old and never get any indication of his upbringing. Clearly, there’s something in his past that has led him to this sickness, yet you don’t get any clues. Instead, you see him at the height of his sickness and are taken on the inevitable downward spiral.
This film lacks poker action and humor, and is not one you should watch on a full stomach, but if you want greater insight into the world of a compulsive gambler, it’s worth your time. If you see some elements of yourself in the main character, it just means you’re human. If you think Phillip Seymour Hoffman could just as well be playing you, call for help — immediately.