Cinema Signal:

the incredible obsession of Brian Molony
by Gary Ross

. "Owning Mahowny"

If you're fascinated by extremes in human behavior, this is a film for you. Philip Seymour Hoffman connects as Dan Mahowny, a shy but effective assistant bank manager by day, an obsessive/compulsive gambler day and night. While this personality disorder is meaty stuff for drama, (take "Secretary", for example) Hoffman brings it home with enough sympathy to make you squirm at his character's relentless self-destructive choices. Mahowny's a guy who can boast that he doesn't (read, "can't") allow more than 72 hours to go by without placing some kind of bet.

When we meet Mahowny, he's in debt for more money than he's got to local bookie Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin) on the horses, the dogs, football teams, whatever's going on. And this is a guy who counts his pennies when it comes to personal needs. The worst part of it is not losing his bets, it's that he has to pay off his debt before he can gamble again -- something like telling a bee it can't have pollen.

After Perlin and his chief enforcer pay him a "facts-of-gambling life" visit, Mahowny is called into a meeting with his two bosses and client Dana Selkirk (classy Sanja Smits) over her request for an increase in her corporation's credit line. The bank president is disinclined to approve the request without Dana's father's guarantee... until Mahowny shows him just how much her account has been worth to the bank. Mahowny's head for numbers and the bottom line saves the day for the client and, thanks to our astute hero, she gets the increase without help from her old man.

In the course of arranging the cash payout on the new Selkirk loan, Mahowny makes a discovery that's going to alter the course of his life and career. His position of trust in the bank and his authority with its staff is a mechanism for loans of his own -- personal loans that he can disguise as Selkirk loans and, when more money is needed, against the account of a fictitious client. Soon, he's got a pipeline of money with which to become an increasingly busier little gambler -- a reluctant high roller. Which brings him to an Atlantic City casino and oily manager Victor Foss (John Hurt) who soon recognizes a patsy with little skill, no resistance, and an impressive bankroll.

While Mahowny is racking up larger and larger losses in an attempt to pay back the bank "loans", he maintains his gentle manner and his relationship with girlfriend Belinda (Minnie Driver), a teller and faithful woman if ever there was one. Once she realizes what's going on with Mahowny's disappearances, she tries to influence him to seek professional help. But the compulsion has an absolute grip on the man's power of acting in his own interest. Denial blinds him to the obvious jeopardy of mixing gambling and banking. At the same time, he's so sympathetically modest and soft-spoken that the fate that surely awaits him becomes a matter of urgency for us, making the drama work nicely.

Which is a credit to the screenplay by Maurice Chauvet, drawn from "Stung", a true story and six-month best seller by journalist Gary Stephen Ross about a real bank manager (Brian Molony) who, in 1982 Toronto, staggered the world of embezzlement with siphoned funds of $10.2 million. Richard Kwietniowski ("Love and Death on Long Island") very ably directed the film on a budget that might have wished for an equal sum. Chauvet and Kwietniowski do a good job of explaining just how and why the sham was conceived and pulled off.

Hoffman owns this role. His tendency to externalize internal choices with stuttering difficulty plays well (far better than in his "Love Liza") in his depiction of a man who could only be described as unremarkable but for the record amounts of other peoples' money he was juggling -- a banker who wears cheap suits and drives a car crumbling with age, gambling not for material wealth or big perks or, even, for security -- but for the thrill of it, for the adrenaline rush, to satisfy the addiction that drives him to lengths of financial ingenuity and misplaced courage.

The esteemed Minnie Driver plays the girlfriend with indestructible devotion, approaching the part with a keen determination not to glamorize but to maintain a personality as modest in demeaner as her man's. This english actress here effects a Toronto accent that sometimes sounds Minnesotan, affects a phony hairdo out of the 50's, but ultimately brings us to imagine the selfless virtues of a real person caught up in her lover's mental disorder.

This is an almost tender piece of work that affords an insight into the helplessness of deep obsession and keenly involves us in its outcome. Mahowny is an anti-hero who treads where we dare not, but in terms of holding our fascination, Owning Mahony is no gamble.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Minnie Driver (teller) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (bank manager)

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