Like William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman might not fit the usual preconception of cinematic Leading Man. Yet, in 2003, both have the lead in movies about gambling or the gambling industry. For Macy, it was THE COOLER, for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination. For Hoffman, it was OWNING MAHOWNY. In their respective films, the character portrayed by each loses his job because he's either embraced or shunned by Lady Luck.
In OWNING MAHOWNY, based on a true story, Hoffman is cast in the title role as the high ranking executive in charge of loans for a Toronto bank. Mahowny also has a gambling addiction, and is indebted to his bookie (Maury Chakin) for slightly over ten grand. To cover his marker, Mahowny creates a fictional loan account, and draws cash from it. Going a step further, he approves cash loans to an existing but unsuspecting customer with a large credit limit, and takes the money on weekend trips to Atlantic City, where he consistently loses at dice, cards, and roulette. By the time he's found out, Mahowny has embezzled over $10 million.
The creators of this film made no attempt whatsoever to render the Mahowny persona attractive to the audience, and it's a wonder he even has a fiancee, Lisa (Minnie Driver). Indeed, Mahowny is so focused on gambling that when the casino manager, Mr. Foss (John Hurt), sends to his suite a complimentary courtesan, who sheds her fur coat to reveal not inconsiderable charms, Mahowny only tells her "You've made a mistake." And he really means it; he only courts Lady Luck. Our hero is so indifferent to anything other than playing the odds that he isn't even somebody with whom you'd consider having a friendly beer. He's single-minded to the point of boorishness.
One can't help but make the comparison between Foss and Shelly Kaplow, the manager of the Shangri-La Casino in THE COOLER. Alec Baldwin received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the latter role, and should have been, I think, the rightful winner of the award. Both Foss and Kaplow are control freaks. But, while Foss is almost coldly clinical in his manipulation of the high rollers that keep his house profitable, Kaplow is a tempestuous character capable of deep emotions, including a volcanic anger that can erupt into shocking violence. Compared to Kaplow, Foss is almost prissy. Baldwin had the meatier and more complex role, though Hurt's performance is excellent.
Films about the sickness of obsessive gambling are few and far between. I haven't seen one as effective as OWNING MAHOWNY since the 1974 movie THE GAMBLER starring James Caan. Though OWNING MAHOWNY is perhaps an art house film not likely to appeal to a wide audience, it gets its message across superbly. Now, how do I tell the wife that I lost the kitchen remodel fund at the track?