Polite and mild-mannered, but secretive, Dan Mahowny is an assistant bank manager in Toronto with a passion for the ponies. His gambling addiction has led to a large debt with a shady, fat bookie. Mahowny tries to beat the odds by betting on other sports games, but he just gets deeper into debt.
Then, Mahowny gets an idea. He decides to start taking large sums of money from the credit line of one of his rich clients, without the client or the bank knowing it. He pretends to the people under him that the client has requested the money, then he takes the money to make regular payoffs to the bookie and continue supporting his addiction.
Another brainstorm leads Mahowny to the gambling tables of Atlantic City, where he grabs the attention of the casino manager, Victor Foss. Foss is looking for high rollers just like Mahowny, so that he can move up the ladder and manage one of the casinos in Las Vegas, the mecca of high rollers.
Mahowny’s descent continues to spiral out of control. He even hides his secretive life from his girlfriend, Belinda, who finally figures out, however, that the man she loves has a gambling problem. Eventually, Mahowny gets caught and everyone learns a lesson about the sinful power of vice and greed, except perhaps the casino manager, who has helped Mahowny siphon off $10.2 million from the bank.
OWNING MAHOWNY, based on a true story, is a droll, entertaining, insightful look at the subtle temptations of gambling addiction, but it’s also about the power of greed. The casino manager is greedy to lay his hands on the seemingly limitless amount of funds that this strange, quiet man, Mahowny, has. Belinda is greedy for love and attention from Mahowny, whom she wants to pop the question of marriage. The bank is greedy for rich customers who want large amounts of credit, at high rates of interest. Finally, the rich customers are greedy for large amounts of credit so they can fund their own personal businesses, habits and dreams.
The screenwriter and director handle these complex themes and characters in a provocative, engrossing manner. For example, although Mahowny’s character hardly changes throughout the story, there’s a wonderful visual joke that brilliantly shows the progression of Mahowny’s personal journey. Early in the movie, Mahowny is stopped by a casino security guard so that a high roller with lots of cash carried by a guarded casino entourage can walk through the casino to get to the gaming tables. At the end of the movie, a misunderstanding about Mahowny’s activities convinces the bank managers to give millions more dollars in credit to the first client from whom Mahowny embezzled funds. Mahowny embezzles the millions, and it’s Mahowny’s turn to keep the other gamblers waiting while his casino entourage escorts him and his cash to the tables.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is positively captivating as Mahowny. It’s a subdued performance, however, that requires close attention if you want to get all the rewarding nuances that Hoffman puts into it. John Hurt’s oily casino manager is also an excellent example of what a powerful actor can do with a juicy role. It was a complete joy to see Hurt interact not only with Hoffman, but also with the other characters at the casino. Hoffman and Hurt are wonderfully supported by the rest of the cast, including Minnie Driver as the compassionate, loving and lonely Belinda; Chris Collins as an honorable, friendly casino worker who’s ordered to keep Mahowny happy; and, Maury Chakin, TV’s latest incarnation of NERO WOLFE, as Mahowny’s single-minded bookie.
OWNING MAHOWNY is a subtle and unassuming, but profound, morality tale about the power of sin. When Mahowny gets caught, he and Belinda are chagrined by the problems they have created. Mahowny even regrets the fact that his activities have led to several people, including Belinda, being suspended from the bank, and his boss being forced into retirement. The credits inform viewers that Mahowny served some prison time for his crimes, eventually married Belinda, who stuck by him, and was “cured” of indulging his gambling addiction. Finally, the credits briefly recount how both the bank and the casino were punished for the bad business practices enabling Mahowny to embezzle all that money. Thus, the story contains some redemptive aspects that support the movie’s moral worldview.
OWNING MAHOWNY contains some strong foul language, however. There is also a short scene where John Hurt’s casino manager, Foss, sends a half-naked prostitute to the large suite that the casino has given to the high-rolling Mahowny. Mahowny refuses the offer. Mahowny’s gambling addiction may have caused him to ignore his loving girlfriend, but he has no intentions of cheating on her with another woman. Ironically, Mahowny’s spartan lifestyle pleases Foss extremely, because it means that Foss doesn’t have to give away too many costly perks to Mahowny in order to get Mahowny to spend his embezzled millions.
There’s also an easy grace portrayed in this movie. Despite the end credits, all the guilty parties seem to get off too easily for their crimes and sins.
Hence, because of its adult content and subject matter, MOVIEGUIDE® must strongly caution viewers, including adults, about seeing this movie. If, however, you do go see OWNING MAHOWNY, stay through the credits: there’s a short visual joke about banks and casinos that’s absolutely precious, as well as insightful.
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Michael Barker, Tom Bernard & Marcie Bloom
Sony Pictures Classics
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(BB, C, Acap, LL, V, S, NN, A, D, MM) Morality tale about greed and the gambling addiction, with some redemptive elements toward the end as well as some anti-banking elements; 17 mostly strong obscenities, four strong profanities and one light exclamatory profanity; bookie threatens gambler with violence if he does not pay and police pull guns on criminal in car; casino manager offers half-nude prostitute to gambler, who refuses the offer, and unmarried couple lives and sleeps together; brief upper and rear female nudity; alcohol use; smoking; and, gambling and embezzlement rebuked.