what i'm watching: owning mahowny

We saw a very good movie last night called "Owning Mahowny". The ubiquitous Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dan Mahowny, an ordinary bank officer with a secret. Mahowny has a serious gambling addiction, and when he finds himself way over his head with his bookie, he initiates a new gamble: a bank fraud.

The nature of his addiction demands that his new-found wealth be gambled away, and with each embezzlement, the stakes grow higher. The story is based on the book Stung by Gary Stephen Ross, the true story of what turned out to be the largest bank fraud perpetrated by one person in Canadian history. The movie is also rare in that it actually takes place in Toronto. Toronto plays itself for a change.

"Owning Mahowny" is a fascinating view into addiction, a subject Allan and I talk about a lot in many contexts. We both have a glimmer of the addictive personality - long since grappled with and in no danger of ruining our lives, but enough to make us perhaps more empathetic towards addiction than people who write it off as moral weakness.

Gambling is the strangest of compulsions to me, the one farthest from my own experience, and Hoffman's portrayal is riveting. Gambling is his single-minded obsession - nothing matters but the gambling itself. Like an alcoholic who cannot stop drinking until he passes out, Mahowny cannot leave the table until there is nothing left to play. There are some scenes - momentary triumph and inevitable loss - that are heartbreaking.

"Owning Mahowny" cleverly intertwines the theme of gambling in many less obvious threads. There's Mahowny at the table, and of course at the bank, where his embezzlement becomes increasingly elaborate, and his bluffs increasingly dangerous. (The bank scenes are brilliant; you hold your breath waiting to see if this will be the time he'll finally get caught.) But many other people are gambling, in ways small and large, literally and metaphorically. This, too, makes you think about addiction: what distinguishes the addict from the normal? In this movie, it's not a slippery slope. It's a very bright line indeed.

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