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OWNING MAHOWNEY

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Maury Chaykin, John Hurt
Director: Richard Kwietniowski
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Trailers
Length: 105 Minutes
Release Date: October 14, 2003

“Some folks believe everyone has a public life, a private life, and a secret life. What do you think about that?”

“The thing is, I guess…that my secret life is a bit less secret than anyone else's right now.”

Film ***

Owning Mahowny is a stirring character study of a man who has dug himself deep into a hole, and can't seem to fight off the very addiction which is digging the hole for him. The addiction in this case is that of gambling, and like all compulsive gamblers, the one depicted in this film is so hooked on the pressure of gambling, that it's almost as if he's in it for the sensation of losing, rather than to simply win. The fact that the film's story actually happened makes it even more fascinating.

The fire and strength of the movie is in that of Philip Seymour Hoffman's brilliantly toned performance. Hoffman plays Dan Mahowny, an employee of a bank in Toronto who has just been promoted to the position of vice president. If there's one thing to learn from Mahowny's story, it's that being an addictive gambler and a bank employee is a dangerous combination.

Mahowny is currently in debt up to his eyeballs. His bookie (Maury Chakin) is on the verge of dropping him. However, Mahowny's instincts change once he is given access to a bank account worth nearly twenty million. Of course Mahowny, never to hesitate when it comes to risks, takes advantage of this ultimately risky plot to take care of his debts, but his problems are only about to escalate.

Before long, Mahowny is making frequent trips to Atlantic City, with larger sums of cash per trip. His visits capture the eye of casino manager Foss (John Hurt), who grows attached to Mahowny quicker than a fly to a corpse, for lack of a better expression. Foss, whose profession somewhat requires him to grow a liking to casino frequenters/losers, keeps a close eye on Mahowny's gaming status, along with all the comps like food, room, and even prostitutes, which Mahowny is quick to reject since he's much in love with his fiancée, Belinda (Minnie Driver).

There's a scene about midway through the movie that perfectly illustrates, I think, just how powerful the addiction of gambling can be. Mahowny is at a craps table, and has won enough money to take care of both his debt and payback the money he's been secretly ripping off. After taking time to acknowledge this, Mahowny insists to continue playing, and he loses from that point on. Even the casino manager is baffled by the maneuver.

The real life incident that inspired the movie took place right in Toronto during the early 1980s. It turns out; Mahowny spent nearly two years taking money from the account in hopes of getting lucky. His debt to his bookie was only in the area of $10,000, and Mahowny's take from the bank was an astonishing $10.2 million.

Owning Mahowny is a much fascinating character piece fueled by the wonderfully focused performance by Hoffman, who remains one of the most unique and coreagous actors of his time. This is nothing short of a tour de force, and is the reason this fact-based movie works so well.

Video ***

This anamorphic offering from Columbia Tri Star is most satisfying, if not complete excellence. The story switches settings from Toronto to Atlantic City to Las Vegas, and each of the sets benefit well, especially the interior of the A.C. casino, where most of the action takes place. A lot of the Toronto-based shots have sort of a gray-ish tone to them, and result in some often soft imaging, which is the only flaw. Other than that, a good show.

Audio **1/2

This is a good enough 5.1 mix that can do so much with a word-driven movie. On that part, the dialogue is extremely well delivered, and the scenes in the casino generate a level of some range. For the most part, this presentation is about as good as you're ever going to get with a film like this.

Features *

Included is a trailer, as well as bonus trailers for Love Liza, Masked and Anonymous, and Punch-Drunk Love.

Summary:

Owning Mahowny makes for both a superb true life incident brought to the screen and a striking character piece perfected by the outstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his best performances to date.