Minnie Driver, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and John Hurt in Owning Mahowny (2003)


(director: Richard Kwietniowski; screenwriters: Maurice Chauvet/from the book “No Limit” by Gary Stephen Ross; cinematographer: Oliver Curtis; editor: Mike Munn; music: Richard Grassby-Lewis/The Insects; cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Dan Mahowny), John Hurt (Victor Foss), Minnie Driver (Belinda), Maury Chaykin (Frank Perlin), Sonja Smits (Dana Selkirk), Ian Tracey (Detective Ben Lock) Chris Collins (Bernie), Erik Fink (Psychologist), Roger Dunn (Bill Gooden), Jason Blicker (Dave Quinson); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Andras Hamori/Seaton McLean/Alessandro Camon; Sony Picture Classics; 2003/Canada / USA / UK)
“Strictly a case of textbook gambling addiction and not much else.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Richard Kwietniowski follows up his debut 1997 feature, Love and Death on Long Island, with this true story of a compulsive gambler. It is written by Maurice Chauvet. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as a reserved, bland, newly promoted assistant bank manager, Dan Mahowny, who earns $22,000 a year and is looked upon by the bank as reliable with a good head on his shoulders for numbers. The youngest assistant manager in the Toronto bank’s history can now approve loans and transfer funds.

Mahowny owes his small time, lowlife, egocentric bookie Frank Perlin $10,300 and will not get any more credit. The gambling drive is so great for Mahowny that he can’t stop, and so instead he works out a scheme of stealing money from the bank’s clients to support his habit. The film is based on the book “No Limit” written by Toronto journalist Gary Ross, that covers Mahowny’s bizarre tale of bank fraud and gambling swings of good and bad luck that took place in 1982 (the film is set between 1980-1982) that led to his arrest and 6 years in prison. Mahowny was charged with embezzling $10.2 million. He lost it all in the frequent trips he took to Atlantic City.

Minnie Driver plays Belinda while adorned with a badly designed straw-colored wig and oversized glasses. Belinda works in the bank as a teller and is Mahowney’s sweet live-in girlfriend. She realizes he has a gambling problem but not until she goes for a weekend to Las Vegas expecting him to propose and instead finds that she can’t pull him away from the craps table, does she realize how big is her man’s problem. But she’s supportive and loves him so much that she still wants to marry him even if she’s only second fiddle. Mahowny is so obsessed that he gets no other pleasure in life but in gambling, and this is seen when he plays for high stakes and nearly breaks the bank but doesn’t have the discipline to walk away from the table with around $9 million. For him, it’s only the thrill of playing and not the money. The oily Atlantic City casino manager, Victor Foss (Hurt), is so fascinated by such an odd creature who is not impressed by his casino perks of a luxury suite, a sexy woman, gourmet food and booze, that he takes a special interest in seeing Mahowny gets the royal treatment. The overweight banker wears cheap suits, has a run-down jalopy, no vices and delights only in eating ribs without any sauce. Since the man is not a player but someone with a sickness, therein lies the limits to the story. Though Hoffman does a nice job getting into his character, there’s only so much he can get at–there’s just ‘no there in there’ as Gertrude Stein once said about Oakland. This character is so addicted that his gambling can’t be controlled, his only cure is to stay away from the racetracks, bookies or casinos. So while the story builds as to how he’s befriended by Foss, who recognizes a sucker when he sees one and aims only to eventually get all his money and impress his bosses in Las Vegas, the story never has any real tension because we’re dealing with a sickie who is in denial about his problem–he calls it a financial problem. What is clearly shown is how the bookie, big time casino operators and the bank, are all weasels who try to squeeze the customer for as much money as they can and are willing to bend the rules to increase their profit margins. I don’t know if this revelation comes as such a big surprise, but the film’s only pleasurable moments were in watching the hapless Mahowny trying to stay afloat by outfoxing these three types of snakes he’s aligned with. He’s a sympathetic figure because of his innocence due to his psychological problem, especially compared to these venomous creatures who know exactly what they are doing. The bankers and the corporate type casino owners are clearly shown to be ruthless. That Mahowny’s scheme comes tumbling down accidentally, when his name pops up in a wiretap of Perlin and the ambitious cop (Tracey) puts a tail on him, is told in a conventional way and that investigation made no impact. The film is basically a vehicle for the popular indie actor to relate to an audience that loves to see him sweat for his roles and identify with his ordinary looks and personality. Hoffman can be quite a charmer in his own slinking way, and as Mahowny he has a role he can really sink his teeth into. But the rub is, the odds are against him coming home a winner because his story is strictly a case of textbook gambling addiction and not much else. It reminded me of Spielberg’s 2002 Catch Me If You Can, as both criminal protagonists had the same shallow personality and both now in real life work to prevent fraud.