Owning Mahowny (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Brian Molony is a real person. He was a rising star in the Canadian banking business in the early 1980s. At the tender age of 24, the workaholic was a senior loan officer at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Toronto. Straight-laced and frugal, he never spent a dollar he didn't have, wore modest suits, and drove a modest car. He was the perfect employee. Except for one thing. He loved to gamble on sports and horses. He owed his bookie $10,000 and could not pay. The bookie was not unreasonable about a payment plan, but insisted on cutting off Molony's action unless he could pay cash.

So Molony figured out a way to get $10,000 by defrauding his employer. He paid the bookie, placed a few more bets, lost, then needed to cover $30,000. More fraud. Then he stole a hundred grand and went to Atlantic City. The casino loved him and starting comping him with chartered jets, limos, expensive meals, hookers, and palatial suites. The casino started making it easier and easier for him to bet. He kept coming back with more stolen money. He became famous enough that other casinos started vying for his business. Molony accepted the percs without any pleasure, without even seeming to notice them. He even sent the complimentary hooker home. He was a gambleholic, just as he was a workaholic. Molony wouldn't have minded riding the public bus and staying at a Motel 6. He would scarcely have noticed the difference. He didn't really care about anything else except the games of chance and risk. Over the next year and a half, he ended up swindling his bank out of more than ten million dollars, and had nothing to show for it.

In the movie version of Molony's life, his psychiatrist asked him, "On a scale of 1 to 100, how would you rank the thrill you get from high-risk gambling?" Molony responded with a perfect 100. The next question was, "How would you rank the biggest thrill in your life outside of gambling?" Molony estimated that the correct response was 20.


Sherry Hilliard shows her breasts as a prostitute provided by the casino.

Molony's story was told in a 1984 book called "Stung:The Incredible Obsession of Brian Molony" by Gary Stephen Ross, and is now re-told in a film named Owning Mahowny. The names have been changed for the movie version of the story (Brian Molony has been renamed Dan Mahowny, for example), but very little else has been altered for the film, which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, moviedom's official go-to guy for losers on a descending spiral further into Loserville. Minnie Driver is on hand as the requisite sensible and long-suffering girlfriend, but the only other main character in the film is a sleazy, oily buttchasm of a casino manager (John Hurt), who seemed to take great pleasure in making a fortune from encouraging a man to destroy his own life. (In real life, the casino and the bank were in litigation over how much the casino knew, and how much they chose not to know. They settled.)

Critics generally loved this film. (Ebert: 4 stars!). I liked it, but not with any passion, and I had my reservations about it.

  • It is an effective movie in certain ways, but it's an unusual one in that it's a character study that really doesn't make any real effort to develop any characters, not even the lead. It concentrates only on what happens to Mahowny from the time he steals his first ten grand to the time he is caught. His life before that is unimportant. His life after that is mentioned only in the obligatory pre-credit word slides. The cinematic allure of the movie is that it tries, with substantial success, to put the viewer into Mahowny's obsessive head, to see how he got hooked, and to experience the emotions involved in his self-entrapment.
  • It's not a mass audience movie because it's totally lacking in joy, and surprisingly lacking in entertainment. Don't expect anything like Catch Me If You Can. It's more like Requiem for a {Gambling} Dream. The man was an addict, and the film details the destructive properties of his addiction. The Mahowny character did not enjoy what he was doing. He was simply addicted to the rush brought on by the risk. As one character said, "he only wants to win so has enough left to come back and lose some more."
  • Some aspects of the script were a little sloppy. Here's an example. A completely broke Mahowny embezzled $100,000 from his bank, by withdrawing $300,000 in cash for a client who requested $200,000. A few hours later, he was seen receiving $100,000 in chips in Atlantic City. What's wrong with that? Can you figure it out? He embezzled $100,000 worth of Canadian money. That would get him about $85,000 worth of chips in Atlantic City in 1980.
When I started to watch the film, I had one more reservation, I was bewildered by the director's choice to shoot it in a super-widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. After all, I was thinking, it's a story that takes place in small spaces and in a man's head. There aren't any fucking chariot races. Hell, there's basically no action at all. I'm not sure what the director's original vision was, but I withdrew my objection because the widescreen cinematography did no harm, and produced a few surprisingly appropriate scenes. One that stands out in my mind is the first complimentary room that Mahowny and his naive buddy got from the casino. The establishment sent down a few members of the hotel crew to escort the two Canadians, safari-style, from a basic Interstate Holiday Inn room to a room that would have floored The Sun King. The first ultra-widescreen glimpse of the new room, seen through the POV of Mahowny's jubilant, wide-eyed friend, justified the entire decision to use that particular aspect ratio.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Panel consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3/4.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 7.0/10, Yahoo voters score it a B.
  • Box office Mojo. It grossed only a million dollars. It played for many weeks, but always in arthouse distribution, never exceeding 24 screens.

DVD info from Amazon

  • super-widescreen anamorphic (2.35)

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+, a movie which draws you into the first person point of view with a unblinking focus and a brilliant, twitchy performance by Hoffman. It's not a mass audience movie, and it's surprisingly lacking in entertainment. (Don't expect anything like Catch Me If you Can. The point of this movie is how little the Hoffman character really enjoyed what he was doing )

Return to the Movie House home page