To some it's a game.
From the trailer, this black comedy looked a whole lot different than what was actually presented in the film. I was thinking Rounders and what I got was anything but. Re-watching the trailer after seeing Owning Mahowny, I can easily see the real movie in the trailer, but my first impression from it was very misleading. The film didn't venture far from what is teased at, but in the end I still felt unfilled.
Facts of the Case
Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Love Liza, Punch-Drunk Love) is Canada's most boring and dullest bank manager of the 1980s. He wears the same drab suit to work every day, and despite his recent promotion to bank manager—the youngest in their history—still drives the same old rusting car he always has. His co-worker and girlfriend Belinda (Minnie Driver, Good Will Hunting) sees something in his safe, unchallenging demeanor, and with her frumpy appearance, they actually make a nice couple. If his sense of style wasn't so awful, there would be almost nothing remarkable about Mr. Mahowny at all.
Aside from his crippling gambling addiction.
More mild-mannered than Clark Kent, no one suspects that Mr. Mahowny is more than $10,000 in debt to his bookie. But Mr. Mahowny knows the system. With access to million dollar bank accounts, Mr. Mahowny starts playing the one against the other, the bank against the casino, all the while enjoying the thrill of the bet with to what amounts to other people's money. As obsession takes hold, and he falls deeper in debt, it becomes more and more apparent that the odds against Mr. Mahowny saving himself are as fleeting as Lady Luck.
The main thing to acknowledge before watching Owning Mahowny is that this film is about gambling addiction. Period. You'll be tempted to think it is about beating Vegas, making millions gambling, but it is not. Ultimately, this film is a character study of a man with a problem, and how this problem ruins his life.
Based upon actual events, Philip Seymour Hoffman controls the mindset of his introverted character with a steadfast determination. So consumed is his character by gambling that Hoffman never even gives the slightest hint that something other than gambling could be guiding him, such as a script or an audience. Take away the dialogue, the supporting cast, even the director, and the single-minded purpose of his character rings out like a church bell on a clear day.
The villain (aside from the addiction), is a casino owner played by John Hurt (Contact). Think used car salesman plus the Devil dripping with oil, and you should be able to understand the nature of the beast. Slick, coy, a master at separating a fool and his money, his performance is as juicy as is his self-serving desires of avarice. His only drawback is his limited screen time, which feels woefully undercut. Minnie Driver rounds out the main cast with an understated performance as the girlfriend with blind eyes to Hoffman's problems.
The film's progression is slick, with some sharp editing, but there isn't enough style to really set it apart. The drab costumes and settings make look realistic, but there is a reason why 1980s fashion isn't popular anymore. It's dull, but director Richard Kwietniowski does his best to make it look interesting. His presentation is good—too bad Columbia's handling of it is not.
Video is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The color palette is heavy on the greens and blues, not to The Matrix's extreme but definitely a cool feel, especially in the casino shots. It is the most clinical I've ever seen Atlantic City. There is noticeable edge enhancement and the lines overall feel a bit soft. Some grain crops up now and then and overall the quality is mediocre.
The audio is only presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 English with no subtitles available. Not overly dramatic or demanding on the ears, the film wants for directional effects, but the soundtrack doesn't deliver. Background noise at a casino should dominate my rear speakers during many of the scenes, but alas, it does not. All the sound merging solely on the front center speaker should highlight Hoffman's tunnel vision, but alas, it does not. In the beginning there is a round-the-room audio spin along a roulette wheel, but after that, nada. What you do get is adequately presented, mainly dialogue in the front center, and for the demands placed upon the listener nothing special is demonstrated either.
Since Owning Mahowny is based on a real person, there should be a wealth of supplements to round out the movie presentation. Perhaps a commentary track with the real Mahowny, or some interviews? No? Not even a short featurette on gambling addiction? No? Phooey. All we do get are trailers for Love Liza, Masked and Anonymous, Punch-Drunk Love and Owning Mahowny. Whoopee.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is a lot of bank mumbo-jumbo talk in the film, that while important and necessary, nevertheless kills the pacing of the film. They did do a good job whittling it down to the bare necessities saving us from page after page of bank legalese said in triplicate, but the drama it tries to build still feels hollow and fake.
The script itself is also quite boring when it comes down to it. The saving grace of the film is Hoffman's acting, and on that alone the movie is saved.
Owning Mahowny's DVD presentation is so lackluster that the only reason you should own this disc is to see Hoffman's performance, but a rental would do the same thing. A touchy subject matter such as gambling addiction can be a hard thing to present, even watch at time, but if a loved one you know may be headed down that dark path, show them this movie before it's too late.
Hoffman is given special commendation by this court, but Columbia is fined heavily for their treatment of the DVD. Court adjourned.
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