In Case You Missed It: Owning Mahoney (2003)
The life of an addicted gambler is a truly lonely existence which I learned firsthand when I spent 9 years working in the Los Angeles casino gaming industry. I saw it all and then some - the mania, the ecstasy, the depression, the excuses, the rationalizing, the surrender. And while I never met anyone exactly like Dan Mahowny, I know the type.
That brings us to 2003’s Owning Mahowny, which tells the true story of a Canadian loan officer who embezzled upwards of $10 million to feed his gambling addiction. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen about gambling that ranks up there with The Gambler (the 1974 original), Croupier and California Split. More importantly, it’s a reminder of what a truly great actor we lost when Phillip Seymour Hoffman passed away in 2014.
As the film starts, we see Dan receive a promotion – which will be his undoing. He exchanges niceties with his pleasant and eventual long-suffering fiancée played by Minnie Driver. But the only joy he feels is when he gets to gamble. His joy is initially extinguished when his bookie (played by the renowned character actor Maury Chaykin) refuses to take any of his bets. Dan is cutoff not so much because of his constant losing but as Frank observes, “You do not know how to bet.” This is demonstrated when we see Dan bet $1,000 on all the home teams in the National League and all the away teams in the American League. Dan just wants constant action.
Dan’s horizons are expanded when he discovers casino gaming in Atlantic City. Once he gets a taste, he is hooked. He then realizes he can subsidize his gambling by creating fake loans in his new bank position. He has momentary winning streaks but as DeNiro noted in Casino, “The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all.” Mahowny’s Atlantic City escapades are monitored and catered by casino boss Victor Foss (played by John Hurt in one of his best performances). Hurt plays Foss as a man with a perpetual smile on display, fascinated by this latest high roller who wants nothing more than to gamble. At one point, Foss sends a prostitute to Mahowny’s room only to have her sent right back. As a casino valet (Chris Collins) notes, “The only woman he is interested in is Lady Luck.”
Dan digs a hole deeper and deeper until the film’s climax when he scrapes together one final bankroll in hopes of getting all of his stolen funds back in time to evade an audit. And it almost works. He gets within a few hands of getting even and bankrupting the casino in the process. But like most gamblers sad stories, getting even is as elusive as chasing the sun.
The film and Dan’s addiction is best summed in the following exchange between
Dan and a court-appointed therapist:
Psychologist: How would you rate the thrill you got from gambling, on a scale of one to 100?
Dan Mahowny: Um... hundred.
Psychologist: And what about the biggest thrill you've ever had outside of gambling?
Dan Mahowny: Twenty.
Owning Mahoney is a fascinating cautionary tale. Dan Mahowny is in no way a particularly likeable character and yet it’s hard not to wonder what we would have done in the same situation, aside from not gamble. The film is told in a matter-of-fact style by director Richard Kwietniowski along with surprising moments of humor.
But Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is the key. Hoffman’s Mahowny is surprisingly unemotional. Rarely do you see him rant or yell, yet his addiction constantly seethes beneath his detached demeanor. It is masterful work where you know exactly what he is thinking at all times, even while he tries to stay one excuse ahead.
I especially enjoyed seeing one particular gambling trope on display. During a brief winning streak, Mahowny takes his winnings to a friend and proclaims, “I need you to hold on this and no matter what happens, do not give to back to me.” Within an hour, Mahowny is back and demanding the money he swore his friend to safeguard. I truly wish I had $1 for every time I saw that in real life.
Dan Mahowny, like most addicted gamblers, wasn’t looking to win but seeking the freedom to lose. I’m not sure if he ever got the help he needed in real life but thanks to Phillip Seymour Hoffman his gambling sad story is cinematically preserved. It’s definitely worth your time, just don’t be surprised if it makes you stay far, far away from the nearest casino.