Before he passed away at the age of 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in 52 feature films. Starring roles, character pieces, chameleon work—he left a legacy nearly unmatched in both quality and quantity. Now, with P.S.H. I Love You, Jonah Koslofsky wafts through the cornucopia of the man’s offerings.
Dan Mahoney (Philip Seymour Hoffman) doesn’t want to win anything – he just wants to gamble. He drives a shabby car, wears a cheap suit, and lives with a woman he clearly doesn’t love. Most of his life is just a front – Mahoney maintains his appearance as a respectable, up-and-coming bank manager to facilitate his destructive hobby, even as a bookie barges into his office to collect the ten grand Dan owes. From the moment we meet him until Owning Mahoney’s final frame, he has no endgame. He just wants to bet.
Should a movie about a gambling addict be exciting? Hoffman’s second lead performance is another picture of addiction, though this one is based on a real person instead of his brother’s script. Where Howard Ratner oozed off the screen in Uncut Gems, firing in every direction and manically circling the frame, Hoffman plays his compulsive gambler as repressed, yet seemingly in control. In need of cash, he invents a loan to square himself with his mobster enabler. When he realizes just how easily he can take from the bank he works for, Mahoney starts making trips from his local Toronto to Atlantic City.
He can finally afford a seat at the table. Set in the early eighties, Dan hides behind a comb over, pencil mustache, and wide, period appropriate glasses, as he shuffles out of work with enormous cash withdrawals and into his preferred casino. Even when he’s up, Hoffman plays him strikingly tense, only twitching out the rare smile. Devastating losses don’t merit much more expression – he’ll raise a finger or two, but you can see the gears turning, as he devises a way to get back into the game. It’s only when he’s about to run dry that Mahoney ever raises his voice.
“I have a financial problem,” he’ll admit, but that’s the most he’ll give. Hoffman and director Richard Kwietniowski are completely committed to an uncompromising portrayal of their subject: Dan is not particularly sympathetic. The filmmaking reflects the disciplined, static stance Mahoney mimics, generally comprised of still, traditional medium shots. Dan’s relationship with his girlfriend Belinda (Minnie Driver) is staged in such a way that we’re never even asked to root for the couple. When the pair inevitably fall apart, it’s neither surprising nor heartbreaking.
Just as in Love Liza, Hoffman expertly plays a black hole. He doesn’t let the disco-decade trappings dehumanize Dan (he’d later successfully rock a similar get-up in Charlie Wilson’s War), and he’s able to quietly convey a lot about his character while Dan keeps cool. You get that this isn’t a dumb guy: he’s bright enough to lie his way through an audit, and he remains completely uninterested in the casino’s lavish attempts to woo him. To again put Owning Mahoney side-by-side with Uncut Gems, Howard Ratner is briefly forced into a greater self-awareness (“I’m so sad! I’m so fucked up!”). Dan stays pretty level throughout.
This is ultimately what holds Mahoney back from being one of Hoffman’s best. There’s not much to root for one way or another, not much tension across the film’s admirably tight runtime. Dan never hurts anyone more than himself, making it difficult to hope he gets caught. He steals from a bank to add to the coffers of a casino; we don’t really care about either institution. We never feel the buzz Mahoney eventually confesses he feels at the table. For a film about a gambling addict, it’s odd the stakes never rise above a simmer.