It's only after Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) fails to pop the question, then spends the first night of their vacation shooting craps till dawn, that Belinda (Minnie Driver) objects. After all, she demands following their arrival home on separate planes, "Why do people go to Vegas? What do normal people do in Vegas?"
Owning Mahowny, an incisive dark comedy about a man with a double life, has two central jokes. One is about the distance between the world of compulsive gamblers and the world inhabited by the rest of us. The other is about their proximity.
Writer-director Richard Kwietniowski tells the fact-based story of Mahowny, a colorless and low-paid but up-and-coming banker whose bosses so prize his impeccable judgment and good sense that they've just made him the bank's youngest assistant manager. They don't know, and perhaps wouldn't care, that by night he frequents racetracks and gambles on sports -- any game'll do -- and that he's busy, here in the early '80s, becoming a blackjack celebrity at the Jersey shore, where he's lured, comped and coddled by a silk-suited Mephistopheles of a casino boss named Foss (John Hurt).
What might interest his superiors more is that Mahowny -- clever, ballsy Mahowny -- funds his little outings by creating fake loan accounts, and by defrauding real accounts, eventually for sums reaching eight figures.
Hoffman, a wonderful actor, as usual disappears into his role, this time with an array of shoulder hunchings, truncated gestures and hooded looks that convey Mahowny's intensely private nature. Playing off the sensitive (if fiercely wigged) Driver and a memorably reptilian Hurt, Hoffman is credible both as the bland but hypercompetent bank functionary and the bland but obscurely driven gambler who turns down free booze, drugs and women, and whose gastronomic pleasures are limited to ribs (no sauce) and a Coke. Mahowny gambles, as someone notes, to win more money to lose; his winner's face differs so little from his loser's mug that the casino security people paid to monitor his every move nickname him "Iceman."
But Mahowny remains an enigma: Just once does he speaks about the thrill of gambling, so it's an emotion we can only infer from his obsession, which itself is a condition we're no better at unpacking than is the long-suffering Belinda, whose role in Mahowny's life slowly changes from enabler to unheeded voice of reason.
We never learn the source of Mahowny's stunning ability to disassociate himself from his circumstances -- whether he's dropping thousands with a throw of the dice or watching auditors close in at the bank. But in Kwietniowski's hands, this film (based on Gary Ross' book Stung) turns into an ironic study of the sociology of gambling.
"I don't have a gambling problem," Mahowny tells anyone who challenges him. "I have a financial problem." Him and everybody else, asserts Kwietniowski. People like Mahowny are the ones buying chips, but we also see how casinos gamble on the gamblers, with Foss hiring a flunky to keep the Iceman at the tables -- then flying into a jealous rage when his richest meal ticket hoofs it to a sister casino in Vegas. Back in the legit world, Kwietniowski shows us banks rolling the dice on their own biggest clients -- then switches channels to the bookies who, at least at first, are better at holding Mahowny to account than are the industry auditors and the vice cops who slowly close in.
Meanwhile there is Mahowny himself. At one point he's playing cards with Belinda and two friends, while on the TV which everyone else is blissfully ignoring, a college basketball player attempts a last-second free throw on whose outcome Mahowny's entire fortune rests. The point is not how meticulous Mahowny is, but how careless -- and how easy it is to fool people who already trust you.
Kwietniowski, who last wrote and directed the splendid 1997 dark comedy Love and Death on Long Island, films Owning Mahowny with steely intelligence, filling it with meticulous detail, especially about casino life, and with quick, telling slices of Mahowny's humdrum everyday existence. In one scene in particular he nails the Mahowny paradox: A detective who's actually after Mahowny's bookie hears undercover reports of the unassuming banker betting -- and losing -- millions in Atlantic City, and all the while the cop is sitting in a parking lot, staring at the rusting 10-year-old jalopy Mahowny left behind at the Toronto airport.