Rarely has a movie captured the feeling of doom better than this one. You know what it’s like, where you find yourself in a repetitive cycle, constantly doing things that you know to be bad for you, and you don’t even really take any pleasure in it, it’s just a compulsive act. You know that this fatal flaw will cause you much harm, but damned if you can do anything to stop the downfall. With me, it’s laziness. With Phil Hoffman’s Dan Mahowny it’s gambling.
What’s amazing about Owning Mahowney is that it never glamorizes or criticizes gambling, it’s simply showing you the process. It reminded me of Requiem for a Dream in that way, which is only superficially about drugs, and really about addiction. Hoffman plays a nebbish bank employee compulsively betting at the dog track and dating an unrecognizable Minnie Driver (hidden behind a blond wig and huge grandma glasses). He begins to lose control of his habit and his bookie cuts him off. So he finds a way to take money out of his bank under his clients’ accounts which allows him to gamble more and more recklessly. Eventually, he moves on to casinos, where the staff progressively begins to treat him like royalty as he spends more and more money. But what makes him odd, and fascinating to the head of the Atlantic City casino (played by John Hurt, badly forcing an American accent), is that he isn’t doing it for the glitz and the glamor. He doesn’t enjoy the huge rooms they provide for him, and the only perk he wants is sauceless ribs and a coke.
Hoffman has played schlub after schlub in movies, but this role seemed somehow different because the role is not really designed to be liked or pitied, you just watch him objectively, and while his sadness is evident, you don’t feel for him, you are more fascinated by his predicament. He never shows joy in gambling and as John Hurt’s character points out, he only wins money so he can lose it. He never even acknowledges anything other than the table while betting.
There are so many great scenes in the movie, from the amazingly poignant and funny low speed chase by the police, to each realization that Hoffman comes to as he sees how easy it is to steal and how he knows that will spell his downfall, and on and on.