Robin’s Underrated Gems: Owning Mahowny (2003)


As you probably know, in the last several years, we have had no shortage of people in the financial industry who have embezzled money from their places of employment. In most cases, the perpetrator did so because of their own personal greed, but what if someone was to embezzle all that money for the sole purpose of ultimately losing it? Such a case actually happened in Toronto in the early 1980s. Brian Molony, a clerk with the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, secretly embezzled over $10 million during an 18-month period. He did this to feed his insatiable gambling habit and would make weekend trips to Atlantic City and Las Vegas to drop the money at their casinos. Even when Molony found success at the tables and started winning, he would inevitably lose all his money by the end of each trip. Of course, there was no way Molony could have conducted a scheme like this without eventually getting caught, but his gambling addiction was so strong that he probably did not care. In 1983, he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for fraud and his story was told in a best-selling book from Gary Ross called “Stung”. In 2003, this book would be adapted into a Canadian film called Owning Mahowny with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Brian Molony. While Molony’s name was changed to Dan Mahowny, the details of the story are essentially the same. Quite simply, Owning Mahowny is one of the best films ever made about the subject of addiction and while you may not sympathize with its main character, you can still understand what would compel him to lead such a self-destructive lifestyle.

As the film opens, Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has just been promoted to assistant branch manager of a prominent Toronto bank. He seems like an ordinary man who lives a frugal, unremarkable lifestyle with an equally ordinary girlfriend named Belinda (Minnie Driver), but he has a dark secret. He compulsively gambles on horse races and sporting events and is currently $10,000 in debt to a bookie named Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin). Perlin cuts him off from placing any more bets until the debt is paid off, but for Mahowny, the idea of not being able to gamble is horrifying. However, because Mahowny’s job gives him access to large amounts of money, he uses this to his advantage by authorizing fake loans to customers who do not exist and using the cash to pay off his debt. This scam helps feed Mahowny’s addiction until he decides to take a large amount of the bank’s money on a weekend excursion to Atlantic City to gamble it away at a casino. When Mahowny starts losing large sums, he catches the eye of the casino manager, Victor Foss (John Hurt). Knowing that Mahowny has the potential to drop a pile of money at his establishment, Foss decides to treat him like royalty and offers every imaginable perk to keep him coming back. Of course, Mahowny isn’t interested in any of the other perks because he is completely absorbed by the act of gambling. As the film goes on, Mahowny manages to alienate everyone around him with his addiction and will eventually drop over $10 million at the casino. Why does Mahowny keep doing it when there’s no possible way he won’t get caught? The answer to that question is perfectly summarized by this exchange.

As you probably guessed, Owning Mahowny is not a feel-good story about someone overcoming their addictions and even when things seem to be going good for the title character, you just know it’s ultimately not going to end well. There are moments when Mahowny could potentially walk away from the casino with a ton of money. At one point, he asks a friend to hold onto $40,000 worth of chips and not give them back under any circumstances, but of course, Mahowny eventually forces him to hand them over. If Mahowny had managed to recoup any of the money he gambled away, he probably could have kept his scheme going for years without getting caught, but he just doesn’t know the meaning of quitting while he’s ahead. Mahowny is so absorbed by the thrill of gambling that he would keep playing forever if he could. Unfortunately, the only way he can stop is if he runs out of money, which inevitably will happen when you keep gambling long enough. While this might not make for the most inspiring material, it’s incredibly fascinating to watch. While Mahowny may not be the most exciting individual in the world, he seems like an otherwise decent person who just ceases to be human while trapped in his addiction. One of the film’s most horrifying sequences is when he takes Belinda on a weekend trip to Las Vegas and completely abandons in her room to go to the tables. When she tries to confront him, he is so immersed in his gambling that he can barely even acknowledge her existence. Director Richard Kwietniowski does a marvelous job at directing these casino sequences and getting inside Mahowny’s head. The film’s climax is particularly well-constructed, showcasing a character who could potentially overcome all his problems if his self-destruction weren’t so painfully inevitable.

Even though the movie didn’t receive near the amount of attention it deserved, Owning Mahowny turned out to be a revelatory performance in the career of Philip Seymour Hoffman. After spending years as one of the top character actors in Hollywood, Owning Mahowny was one of Hoffman’s first opportunities to take on a lead role and he just knocks it out of the park here. It’s incredibly hard for an actor to portray a deliberately uncharismatic, low-key character and make the audience care about him, but Hoffman pulls it off and does a brilliant job at using his mannerisms and body language to convey Mahowny’s obsession. Hoffman was unjustly denied an Academy Award nomination for this performance, though he would take home the Oscar only two years later for Capote. While Owning Mahowny is Hoffman’s film, all the supporting performances are solid, particularly John Hurt as the sleazy Victor Foss. The character is portrayed the absolute worst kind of enabler and acts like such a predator towards Mahowny that he becomes borderline cartoonish. However, Hurt’s performance actually provides the story with some much-needed humour because his obsession with getting Mahowny’s money (while deliberately going out of his way to not find out where it all came from) is often hilarious. While the movie ends before any of this is shown, the real-life Brian Molony was ultimately able to overcome his gambling addiction and move on with his life. He eventually found work as a business consultant, using his own personal experience to help catch others who committed embezzlement and fraud. If there is an inspirational message to this story, I suppose it’s that if someone as immersed in their addiction as Brian Molony can overcome it, then there’s hope for anybody. Movies about addiction are often not easy to watch, but Owning Mahowny is undoubtedly one of the best and makes for a very powerful and instructive motion picture.

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