“I don’t have a gambling addiction”, Mahowny repeatedly asserts throughout the movie. Rather, he explains, he is in a financial situation. Never mind that gambling was the reason behind financial situation he is in.
Addiction is never a pretty sight, but I imagine it is much worse for the person in the middle of it. Ownng Mahowny chronicles Dan Mahowny’s steady decline, which ends in his arrest and conviction of fraud.
As a high level employee at a bank, he had access to large accounts and routinely skimmed money off of the top. As a model conservative and somewhat dull person with a clunker of a car and ill-fitting clothes, no one suspects him of fraud.
Minnie Driver plays Philip Seymour Hoffman’s long-suffering girlfriend, who knows about his gambling addiction and along with 13 others at the bank, loses her job following his arrest for fraud. Yet she continues to stand by him—even after he owes the bank over $10 million.
The acting is superb but leaves little room for sympathy with the characters. It is hard to understand the addiction from the outside and we are never let into Mahowny’s head until the end of the movie. During a conversation with a therapist, he is asked about the level of thrill that came from gambling (100 on a 0-100 point scale) vs. the highest non-gambling thrill he has had (20). Can he live the rest of his life with 20 being the maximum thrill he can have, his therapist asks?
With this exchange, we see the type of compromise that addicts must make, akin to living a life that is not painted with all the vibrant colors of the palette. They must settle for something less.
To be fair, Owning Mahowny never set out to explain addiction or offer insights. Instead, it is based on the real-life actions of a Canadian banker from 1980 to 1982. The movie was a vehicle for Hoffman to explore yet another interesting character.