It’s the early 1980’s. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Dan Mahowny, a Toronto bank manager whose body is as soft and slow as his mind is sharp and quick. Mahowny moves through a geography of parking garages and offices and airplanes in grey-clad mediocrity. It’s not that he seems too kind to commit extraordinary crimes; he seems too dull.
But Mahowny, whose character is based on the actual story of Brian
Molony, manages to embezzle $10 million Canadian dollars. He invents clients and accounts that do not exist; he skims off the top of those that do. So we watch Mahowny whisper demands to his bookie over bank phone lines, and we watch him sweat as he fills out a bogus business loan. Lies make you hide, and Mahowny hides under florescent office lights and in his bed at night. Owning Mahowny is not the portrait of a criminal or a sinner though, it is an invitation into the singularly compelled body of an addict.
The nothing guy’s one desire
Mahowny’s hungers are monotonous. He takes no joy in eating the food that fattens him, he is not cheering for a particular sports team when he bets. Three scenes show Mahowny with his girlfriend Melinda (Minnie Driver) in bed, each colder than the next. They lie on a plastic-wrapped mattress and talk of owning a house they will never buy. He curls up in the fetal position and promises a weekend trip that he will botch.
On a trip to Vegas he leaves Melinda for his one desire—the gambling tables. His libido and his life are consumed by this—to win one hand, and another, and another. And he does win, and there is, in an instant, a flicker of some liveliness in his eyes, but the “Iceman,” as he is called by the Casino employees who watch him, is rote in his brilliance and slavish in his failures.
It is clear that he must lose it all, but he is feted first—given a penthouse room in Atlantic City and the doting of casino manager Victor Foss (John Hurt). As long as he is paying he is a prince. And then he becomes a frog, and, soon enough, a convict. Only pitiful Melinda stays beside him.
In the land of milk and money…
Hoffman carries this movie, making a fine antihero for the age of cubicle living. From his own story questions are asked of our greenback culture, with none too subtle parallels drawn between the thrills of banking and the addiction to gambling. White-collar crimes are bloodless and Mahowny is too. We watch his frantic descent from the sterile vantage of the casino security cameras, and the view is painful and convincing, like a prolonged public service announcement. The roulette table is a riot of color and flash, but in Owning Mahowny we see it as a blue on blue glow.
That’s as it should be—nothing is as monotone as addiction, and Hoffman shows this well.