But He Was Just Such a Nice Embezzler and Gambling Addict
Okay, in worrying news, Rotten Tomatoes is now no longer letting me link to a new page in which to write reviews, and I'm having to do this in a little tiny window on the main page for the movie. This may be a temporary glitch. I hope it is. But it's another thing that makes me wish I could find another site to do reviews on that didn't randomly take features away and still let me do things like give things specific ratings. I also no longer seem to have the thing where it tells me how many characters I'm using, so it's entirely possible that this review may run short . . . or long. Still, that's yet another arbitrary limit I've set for myself, though since I've gotten so lousy at posting a review a day, I really feel I should stick to my self-imposed length requirement. I realize that probably very few of you have seen this movie; I don't know how many of you have even heard of it. After all, it's pre-[i]Capote[/i], back before people knew who Philip Seymour Hoffman even was.
In this, he is playing Dan Mahowny, a quiet man with a mid-level banking job for a Toronto bank. When we first encounter him, it is to a chorus of surprise from his coworkers. He's just been promoted, and he still wears bad suits and drives a lousy car. He can't even guarantee that he'll be able to afford to take his girlfriend, Belinda (Minnie Driver), to a nice restaurant to celebrate. We quickly find out why, even though no one else knows--he's crazy in debt to Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin), a bookie he met at the track. Belinda knows that Dan spends time at the track, but even she cannot comprehend exactly how much money he gambles. And then, Perlin won't give Dan any more credit. He's in for thousands already, and he hasn't been doing well. Dan decides that the obvious solution is to fake a loan application, grant the fake loan, and take the money out of the bank. When this isn't enough, he begins to take money out of a major account of which he is in charge, that of Dana Selkirk (Sonja Smits). She is starting her own business, I think, but her father is extremely rich, and the bank figures that, if they can get her father to guarantee the loan, they'll soak her for all they can get. Similarly more interested in the bottom line than in Dan is Victor Foss (John Hurt), a casino manager in Atlantic City. He pegs Dan as the quietest high roller he's ever seen and figures he can make a fortune off him.
All of this, it's worth noting, is based on a true story. The real man wasn't named Dan Mahowny, but his real name, Brian Molony, was deemed to close to the name of then-Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. I don't know what other names were changed, and to be honest, I'm not interested enough to go look it up. However, I do know that it's considered the largest one-man theft from a bank in Canadian history. I don't know if it's historically accurate, but here, he basically gets away with it because no one can quite believe he's the sort of person who would do it. Yes, the Selkirk account is an easy target--the bank would love her father's business, so they give her a lot of leeway--or anyway Dan gets a lot of leeway when he pretends to be getting money for her. He manages to keep his gambling a secret, or anyway the extent of it. He even finds a way to get the money from the bank to the casino that doesn't require his going through customs or anything--or even signing his own name to casino documents. Certainly he never [i]spends[/i] any of the money he's embezzled; he loses all of it. He wins an enormous sum in Vegas, but it all goes to paying back Perlin--and the bank.
I'm not much of a gambler, myself. It isn't even just that I can't afford to lose the money. Similarly, on a flight from Toronto to Atlantic City, a cage teller (Karen Robinson), says she doesn't understand the appeal but is willing to go along with it because, hey, she still has a job. She understands the appeal of winning, but she knows that there isn't a whole lot of that in gambling. Now, if Foss had known about that conversation, she would have been as fired as Bernie (K. C. Collins). However, she's having the conversation with a gambling addict, who literally cannot understand her perspective. He tells a few people over the course of the movie that he doesn't have a gambling problem, that he has a money problem. At first, Belinda even believes him. However, when he leaves her all night in a hotel room in Vegas while he gambles--when she thought they were going to Vegas to get married!--she begins to realize there's more to it than that. When it isn't the only night that he stays out gambling, she knows that there's nothing she can do to change his behaviour. Probably Foss is the person with the best insight into the mind of a gambling addict, but it's also possible that he can't quite believe that Dan is an addict, because, I mean, look at him!
The only person until the end who suspects anything is the private detective Foss hires (David Collins) when he's trying to learn enough about Dan to lure him away from Vegas. Even he can't quite believe what he's thinking--which is why he never actually gets the chance to say it. Addict or not, Dan keeps coming up with the money, and the kind of money Dan loses in that casino is enough so that Foss doesn't want to know the truth. He's willing to take all kinds of ridiculous risks in order to keep the flow of cash coming in. And of course, the reason that Dan loses isn't that he's a gambling addict. It's that the odds in any casino game are on the house. Eventually, the house always wins. Dan was doomed from the very first bank draft, and it was only blind luck and his own harmless demeanor that let him get on for as long as he did. Oh, the movie isn't the best-ever portrayal of the whole thing, I'm sure, but the one thing no one quite seems able to fault in it is the Philip Seymour Hoffman performance. He won his Oscar for one of the most distinctive men of the twentieth century, but his real gift is playing boring guys in extraordinary situations. Even if the situations are of their own making.