Owning Mahowny
directed by Richard Kwietniowski
(Sony, 2003)

As the youngest-ever manager of a large Toronto bank, Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) earns $22,000 (Canadian) a year. But he's able to place bets worth tens of thousands of dollars with local bookies -- and lose millions in an Atlantic City casino. How he does that is the stuff of Owning Mahowny, a small, quiet film from Richard Kwietniowski, director of Love & Death on Long Island.

It's a true story, for the most part, based on events that occurred from 2000-02, during which time Mahowny pulled off the largest one-man bank fraud in the history of Canada. Mahowny's clients, it seems, opened million-dollar lines of credit at this bank and, when they overdrew, the account limits were simply raised.

That might cause problems for any other assistant manager, but Mahowny had "an impeccable record" and "excellent judgment." Or so said his bosses.

But Kwietniowski is less interested in how Mahowny gets the money than in how he gets rid of it -- or how he rationalizes his all-too-obvious addiction to gambling to his girlfriend/co-worker, Belinda (Minnie Driver). Because for all Hoffman's acting talent, the real fun in Mahowny is watching the bookies and casino operators work. Knowing they have a big fish on the line, they pull out every lure in the bait box -- from ribs without sauce to a fur-lined hooker -- to see that Hoffman shells out more and more money he can't afford to lose.

It's a somber tale, and Kwietniowski sets just the right tone for it. The color scheme -- light browns, pale greens and off-whites -- reinforces the drabness of what's taking place. And there's an abundance of shots in parking garages, where the concrete beams seem to weigh as heavily on Mahowny as his losses.

It's also a well-stocked set. John Hurt strikes just the right tone as casino manager Victor Foss, hiring and firing and rehiring people without even a moment's notice, based on their ability and willingness to help him clean out Mahowny. And Maury Chaykin adds an equally sleazy touch as bookie Frank Perlin, who enjoys showing up in the worst possible places to embarrass Mahowny into keeping up with his payments.

And of course there's Hoffman himself, the master of underplaying emotional scenes. Although not as sympathetic as he was in Love, Liza -- where his addiction to gasoline sniffing harmed no one but himself -- he uses his talent for understatement well, rationalizing away all the real concern for Mahowny's predicament with a cool "I don't have a gambling problem. I have a financial problem." Few actors can deliver such ironic half-truths with so much conviction.

Yet for all the talent that went into Mahowny and all the interest it sparks, the film ultimately lacks emotional punch. Perhaps it's because there's no crime of passion here, simply crimes of figures. Or perhaps it's that we know from the outset that Mahowny is a bubble about to burst -- it's not a matter of if, but of how and when.

Whatever the reason, Owning Mahowny is a fascinating film, an intriguing film, a film full of memorable images, perceptive dialogue and a horn-filled score reminiscent of Roman Polanski's Chinatown. But those awaiting a big bang will be disappointed. Mahowny starts small and stays small -- all trees and no forest, you might say. But oh, what trees.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 10 April 2004

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