From Rounders to 21, movies about high-stakes card playing have become a sub-genre all their own. Despite having a wide range of quality, the overall goal of these films is to warn against a lifestyle of vice. Molly’s Game joins the rank of such cautionary tales that inevitably punish their leads for what seems to come inherently to any level of success in card games—gambling addiction that ruins relationships, drug dependency, and rock bottom—only for a miraculous resolution in the end. Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut plays in the same vein. The film is based on the true story of Molly Bloom’s rise, not by playing cards, but running her games in exclusive, mostly-legal poker nights. That’s where Molly’s Game twists from the standard poker story. However, the results, to a significant degree, remain.
To invest in Molly Bloom as a character is to feel for her despite the challenge of her obvious privilege. Indeed, Molly’s is a rags-to-riches story that exchanges the rags for an unhealthy relationship with her family, particularly her father. The film lures your empathy to a tragic skiing injury that ruined her professional skiing career, taking her from promising Olympic hopeful to a girl in need of spine surgery who ends up with a loss of purpose and identity. Confronted with a fork in the road, Molly delays law school in favor of a part-time job as an assistant also organizing her abusive boss’ weekly poker game. She eventually turn this into a small empire.
In case the skiing injury is not enough to put you on Molly’s side, the story relies on the voice of Molly herself, played by Jessica Chastain. Molly narrates every detail of every moment to the point you are listening to an audiobook as much as watching a movie. Chastain’s voice and fast-talking wit is an ever-present feature that saturates Sorkin’s film as Molly and her lawyer, played by Idris Elba, banter at the speed of light. And it works. Take the cleverness of a Juno or Tyrion Lannister and apply it to the world of Law & Order and you will have something like the dialogue of Molly’s Game. It’s a battle of debate and witticisms that inspire you to be cleverer, or completely daunt you by the impossibility to think so fast, so often.
While Molly is the captain of her gambling ship, its anchor is a character revealed only as Player X, played darkly by Michael Cera. Player X is a soft-faced card shark who is, by some standard, one of the few villains of the film.
“I don’t like playing poker,” Player X tells Molly one night as he tries to convince her to raise the buy in and lure bigger fish for him to devour. “I like destroying lives.” And destroy lives they do as powerful man after man rise and fall at the gambler’s table, falling to their addictions and ruining their lives. That’s a dark ass quote, and Michael Cera nailed its essence as we saw gambler after gambler come unhinged.
While Player X is never explicitly named in the film he is widely known to represent real-life Tobey Maguire, and, damn, I don’t know where to go with that except to question why the actor’s “dark” portrayal of Peter Parker in Spider-Man 3 was an emo bar dancer.
Idris Elba plays the role of Molly’s lawyer but also our moral suspension of disbelief. Where the lawyer begins at odds with Molly, not buying her story and refusing to represent her, she eventually wins him over. If he, the perfectly moral lawyer described as not having so much as the slightest hint of sleaze to his name, who assigns his young daughter to read The Crucible, can see to Molly’s pure core and respect her unwillingness to name names, then we can too. Elba’s increasing passion is critical to winning the audience towards Molly’s portrayal as essentially the criminal with a heart of gold. His passionate speech in her defense is meant for us as much as the prosecutors.
Molly’s identity is shaped partly by her tough father, played by Kevin Costner, who spurred Molly’s implicit desire to rule over powerful men. He’s a brilliant therapist, seen scarcely in the film that teeters between flashbacks and present day, weaving together two separate times of Molly’s life, her rise and fall. Molly’s relationship with her dad is ham-fisted into a narrow few scenes, mostly in the first act of the film, and again in the third. In the end is the worst scene of the movie as Molly has a breakdown while skating too fast on the ice rink at Central Park. Her father appears, unseen in years, and shows why he’s a brilliant therapist by explaining her need to rule over powerful men before swearing to hurt the people who hurt her. Those people are the Russian mob.
The third act paints a picture for Molly’s future, her fate in the hands of the criminal justice system. Do you end up on Molly’s side? Can you root for a woman who despite having most of her advantages given to her, spirals into a world of illegal gambling, drugs, and “destroying lives”? Can you hope for her acquittal? By the end, if your answer is “yes” then Sorkin has expertly done his job. Perhaps Molly’s narration begs empathy for her character, or her morality bending by promoting the men who destroyed lives, but never breaking by giving their names to broker a deal for herself.
In the end, I did not find myself satisfied with the result of Molly Bloom’s fate, but this is based on a true story, and I am not often satisfied with the grace afforded affluent white women within the legal system. As it is in real life, so it is with Molly’s Game. I did, however, fall into the rags-to-riches story, the gumption shown by a woman who knew nothing of an industry and built an empire with little more than her wits and seized opportunities. If you have an entrepreneur in you, a single such bone in your body, you may find Molly’s Game unsettlingly inspiring too. At minimum, a story this crazy begs you read the book on which it’s based.