Wednesday, December 01, 2010

[DVD] Owning Mahowny (2003)

How Much Can You Lose Today?

I suppose if anyone locally wants a cautionary tale about the ills of obsessive and compulsive gambling, they can look no further than Owning Mahowny, which is based on the true story of Canadian Brian Molony, who had embezzled more than 10 million dollars from the bank he works for, to fund his primary vice. It's a modest little film with functional production values that go straight to the point, where you can tell that director Richard Kwietniowski probably didn't have plenty of cash to splurge on recreating glitzy sets, but that actually is very much with the psyche of the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

We have our fair share of white collar criminals from clerks to the top of the food chain such as the chief financial officer of a major local brewery whose addiction and crime committed was fairly similar to the one portrayed here, with the use of privileged position to get credit, or manipulate something out of nothing from the abuse of procedural loopholes and basic level trust, and being treated like the whales that casinos roll out the red carpet for. Up until this day we have fraud cases from charities to government linked companies, so it goes to show that there are still those out there who aren't savvy to these crooks, or just plain complacent about it, adopting the "it can't happen here" attitude.

Hoffman plays Dan Mahowny, a frugal man who lives modestly despite his recent promotion at a bank he works in, and being the representative behind large customer accounts. There's one thing that his employer doesn't know, and that's his gambling habit, which grows into a problem and an obsession while they recognize him as a whiz. We observe how he graduates from small time gambling on sports scores, finding himself owing money to the gambling joint operated by small timer Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin), before mounting debts forces Dan to try to bail himself out through the bank's loopholes, and the abuse of his trusted position in the organization to get credit extended to phantom accounts he creates. His non threatening demeanour also allows for gaining the trust of auditors even, the kind whom you want to slap around for not doing their job thoroughly and conscientiously.

In any case, through fraudulent means of obtaining hard cash, Dan fuels a growing problem, and graduates into making weekend trips across the border to Atlantic City, where he can gamble almost incognito until his spending, and losing, habit catches the attention of the casino's manager Victor Foss (John Hurt) and herein lies the other half of the fun watching this film, that of the strategies employed by casinos to hook their whales, and to ensure their continued return through whatever means possible. Accommodation gets upgraded, on the house food and drinks, and even women become part of the heady game to ensure the long term patronage of their best customer.

When I was in Vegas, a driver once told me that it's an illusion to think that you can win big at the casinos. All you have to do is to look at the size of the hotels and overheads it has to cover, and you'd know whether you'd have a remote chance of winning. If everyone can do it all the time, the shop might as well close, rather than to rake in record profits. It's a mathematical game where in the long run, the house is bound to win statistically, so to anyone seemingly winning at the tables, statistics is on the casino's side to win, so long as they employ strategies to keep you around through whatever means possible. And some of these are portrayed in the film, others which you can find out should you step into one.

The direction and story in Owning Mahowny is quite textbook, where the protagonist finds himself losing his girlfriend (Minnie Driver) and his soul to an addiction he refuses to admit. Bigger lies have to be told to cover past lies, and the cover ups just mount as one gets bolder in committing offense after offense to cover the previous losses with plans becoming more daring, and needless to say, riskier. In some ways the sparse decor in some scenes serve to put our attention on the characters themselves, and here Philip Seymour Hoffman shines outright in his portrayal of a troubled man in very nuanced fashion, making him very believable as someone with problems he has no idea how to solve and get out of.

It's not always the glitz and the glamour, which are really short lived and rolled out so long as you have the cash to splurge. Otherwise it's the harsh realities of life that set back in. I'm recommending this film to anyone who knows someone with a gambling problem, or are interested to see just how easy it sometimes is to get away with fraudulent activities within companies with lax processes or auditors (you have to admit their job isn't easy to fish out tracks which are likely covered up, unlike in a film for dramatic purposes), and a lack of proper checks and balances executed by a more competent team. The problems and issues here are still real and relevant up until today, in different countries.

The Region 1 DVD by Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer with audio in English Dolby Digital 5.1, with scene selection available over 28 chapters and English Closed Captioning. No extras are found on this DVD edition except for Trailers for Love Lize (2:24), Masked and Anonymous (2:25), Owning Mahowny (2:06) and Punch-Drunk Love (2:33) which are presented in an anamorphic widescreen format.

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