Dan Mahowny is a middle-echelon white-collar worker, a Canadian bank vice president who makes around 60 grand a year and who has earned himself the trusted position of overseeing loans with a minimum of supervision. He appears to be a model employee, with a withdrawn seriousness that makes him seem somewhat like a stereotypical bank manager: a fussy, no-nonsense, ill-dressed schlub who’s functionally sociable, but who in all other ways seems to have disappeared into his job. He also has a serious gambling addiction, which leads him to embezzle — or, to his mind, temporarily borrow — at first thousands and then eventually millions of dollars.
This is a true story, so you know from the beginning that Mahowny is going to be caught, or how else would his deception have come to light? There’s no suspense concerning that point and very little tension arises as Mahowny bypasses various opportunities to make a clean break from his bad habits. Nor are we given any reasons for the origin of his addiction, aside from an implied dissatisfaction with his life combined with some golden opportunities for theft. The focus of the movie is on how the addiction works, how it becomes a thing that exists apart from its original impetus. We don’t learn why he began gambling, but we do see that his initial rationale for gambling is to make enough money to pay off his gambling debts. It’s significant that the few times he’s directly confronted by someone about his compulsion, he responds, without irony, “I don’t have a gambling problem. I have a financial problem.”
But winning, or for that matter losing, isn’t the point of Mahowny’s gambling — rather, it’s playing the game, seeing what happens next. The high of scooping in a large pot is one of immense pleasure, but it’s not as intense as the buzz derived from tossing the dice one more time or taking another hit in a game of blackjack. It’s essential that the state of gambling be perpetuated, just as it’s essential that the addict find something in his habit that eludes him in his everyday life. When asked by a psychiatrist to rate the amount of pleasurable excitement he derives from gambling on a scale of 1 to 100, Mahowny says 100 — and then when asked to rate his best experience outside of gambling on the same scale, he responds, after a brief pause, 20.
Mahowny is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who excels at delineating miserable characters, either humorously, as in Happiness, or with genuine pathos, as in Boogie Nights. (He was also archly sinister in The Talented Mr. Ripley, though he failed to charm in State and Main, where his nervous little smile started to seem like actorly shtick.) Here the misery on display is that of a tightly wrapped paragon of denial, and Hoffman plays it close to the vest, foolishly stoic and tragically deluded.
John Hurt is the somewhat diabolical Atlantic City casino manager who gleefully sees that Mahowny’s road to ruination is well-comped and as comfortable as possible. The aptly named Hurt’s hangdog demeanor has served him well in the past in the role of the low-keyed sufferer — one can easily imagine him in the Mahowny part here — and he uses that same quiet, watchful manner and that surprisingly sonorous voice to convey a sense of implacable power. He knows that Mahowney is eventually going to lose big and the deep satisfaction he derives from the addict’s helplessness is darkly comic. Also impressive are Maury Chaykin, as Mahowny’s puzzled but accommodating bookie, and Minnie Driver, looking theatrically frumpish as the faithful girlfriend who’s slow to figure out just what her boyfriend’s deal is.
Some may find Owning Mahowney dramatically claustrophobic — one is asked, after all, to spend an hour and 40 minutes with a man trapped inside a compulsion that’s painfully predictable — but this one’s worth seeing for the acting alone. And for the fact that it doesn’t neatly wrap up its terrible subject.
Addictions, after all, tend not to have happy endings. They take their toll and then, if they don’t kill you, you live in their shadow for the rest of your life, having been expelled from a devastating paradise.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].