Owning Mahowny

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a fine actor, no question, but his greatest strength is in choosing roles. He plays losers best, he knows it, and he embraces it. Even his characters who manage to succeed in their worlds, like the screenwriter in “State and Main” (2000) or the rock magazine editor in “Almost Famous” (2000), have an air of world-weariness about them, like they’re going to become cynical even if they don’t fail.

So I like his performance in “Owning Mahowny,” in which he plays a Canadian man with a gambling addiction who quickly fritters away his own money and the millions of dollars he embezzles from the bank he works for. Despite the similarity in story lines — both are based on true stories, too — Dan Mahowny isn’t like the dashing con man Leonardo DiCaprio played in “Catch Me If You Can.” Hoffman plays Mahowny as exhausted, ill and constantly terrified of being caught. He’s a man trapped, spiraling downward, his loser-ness increasing with every passing moment. And Hoffman plays him perfectly, right down to the subtle hint of a Canadian accent.

Mahowny is a loan officer at a bank who uses his position first to steal enough money to pay off his bookie, but eventually to steal more than $10 million. (Those are 1980 Canadian dollars, too.) He is not a bad person, nor malicious; he is simply addicted to the thrill of gambling, of both winning and losing. He cannot possibly stop, can’t imagine his life if he did stop. It’s who he is. Stealing money to keep himself going is a justifiable means to an end. I mean, what’s the alternative? To stop gambling? Absurd.

Such is the reasoning of an addict, and the film, directed by Richard Kwietniowski, excels at making compulsions relatable even to those of us who have never been seriously addicted to anything. We think, “I would never become so hopelessly lost in an addiction like that!” And simultaneously, we think, “I can see where he’s coming from.”

Minnie Driver plays Dan’s long-suffering girlfriend, the meek and mousy Belinda, the way that sort of character is generally played in these movies. She puts up with a lot, alternating between anger and sadness, but continues to stay with the bum anyway.

The film languishes in its final third, putting off the inevitable conclusion longer than it ought to. There is a certain sadness about the whole thing, of course, along with the perverse thrill of seeing a character self-destruct the way Mahowny does. Prolonging this beyond what is necessary is unwise, and the film ought to have been more tightly edited.

That said, the movie’s effect on the viewer is impressive. It thoroughly wraps the audience into its tragic tale and lets us live a couple hours in a frenzied mind created by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

B (1 hr., 44 min.; R, a few harsh profanities, some nudity, brief sexuality.)