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'Molly's Game' a much-needed poker movie

22 January 2018

It's been a while since there's been a big poker movie, hasn't it? And even longer since there's been a good one.

After a few delays — the initial release date was supposed to be Thanksgiving weekend — Aaron Sorkin's film adaptation of Molly's Game hit limited theaters on Christmas and went into wide release on 5 January. I saw it on New Year's with a friend who's in my women's poker group, because even multiple weeks of bone-chillingly deep freeze wasn't going to keep us away from a poker movie with a female lead. Then I saw it again yesterday because there’s no shame in going to the movies by yourself.

Jessica Chastain stars as Molly Bloom, an Olympic skiier with daddy issues who, in the wake of an accident that ends her skiing career, winds up running exclusive, high-stakes poker games in Los Angeles and then New York. When her New York game gets busted for hosting a bunch of Russian mobsters, Bloom has to hire a lawyer, Charlie Jaffey — played by Idris Elba — to defend her, a process that is made difficult by the fact that the government has seized all her money (and put a $2 million tax lien on it, just to be mean).

This means that Bloom largely has to talk Elba into representing her via lots of very fast arguments, full of tangent-riddled rants designed to show off how much stuff Sorkin knows about... anything Sorkin wants to look smart about, really. If you're familiar with Sorkin's other work (such as A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Moneyball, or the TV shows The West Wing and The Newsroom) you know what kind of snarky, overpacked dialogue I'm talking about. Some people seem to really like it; I admit it bugs me a bit because it interferes with my suspension of disbelief: It's entirely too obvious that this isn't quite what really happened because real people don't talk like they're in an Aaron Sorkin movie, and these folks are all talking like they're in an Aaron Sorkin movie, and I am VERY AWARE THAT I AM WATCHING AN AARON SORKIN MOVIE. Not a single question gets directly answered the first time during the entire film, no matter how simple. I don't know about you, but in real life, I avoid people who cannot answer simple questions, because they are annoying as hell. Everyone in this movie is annoying as hell.

Director Aaron Sorkin

Director Aaron Sorkin (photo by iDominick via Wikimedia commons)

Nevertheless, it is a very engaging movie. Chastain is utterly convincing as she guides us through Molly's transformation from an elite but nonetheless squarely middle-class athlete into a wealthy, polished, glamorous stewardess of high-rolling male fantasies — the "Cinemax version of herself," a self she continues to dress up as well past the point where she's arrested and has no money. She wears low-cut tops and exquisitely shaded eye makeup as she blusters and argues her way into retaining Jaffey's legal services, stonewalls the government's prosecutors, and refuses to sell out her former players. She does put a normal shirt back on for her sentencing hearing, though, which I think indicates that that's when she actually puts that chapter of her life behind her and accepts that whatever is going to happen to her is going to happen to her.

The movie Molly's Game is most often referred to as an adaptation of the book Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker. This isn't quite the case: The book features quite heavily within the movie, with Molly's arrest by the FBI taking place just as she's gearing up for the press tour. Her lawyer reads it; Molly and Jaffey then argue a lot about what information she's put in and what she's left out of the book, then they argue with the government prosecutors about it. A big chunk of the movie's conflict revolves around Molly's unwillingness to name names either in the book or outside of it, even though ratting out her former players would have been very monetizable. One possible way for her to pay Jaffey's quarter-million-dollar retainer fee is for her to sell the movie rights to the book, which I guess she must have done, since we're watching the movie. It's very meta.

I will admit it's a bit of an awkward time for this movie to be using Molly's unwillingness to endanger the careers of the Hollywood bigshots she hosted as a noble moral principle that we should be really impressed she's standing fast on, since the current big story in Hollywood is that all of the bigshots are apparently giant creepers. I had a difficult time mustering up concern for the careers of unnamed-but-definitely-famous players Molly was defending, instead vaguely wondering if it was anyone who's been in the news lately. This really shouldn't be considered a fault of the movie itself since I'm sure no one involved in adapting it had any idea this was coming, but it did mean that none of my investment in or admiration for Molly had anything to do with her moral uprightness — in fact, I found myself a little appalled at the plotline in which Jaffey's teenage daughter considers Molly her hero; she is a terrible role model — and was instead based solely on how impressive the operation she built was. As far as I could tell, she goes from knowing nothing at all about poker to running the biggest underground game in the world in the space of a few years, and without ever playing a single hand of poker herself.

But just because she's not playing doesn't mean she isn't paying attention. Molly is nothing if not an obsessive learner, and as she surreptitiously masters the game via a combination of watching her players and Googling stuff, she discusses via voiceover just enough of what she's learning to allow a non-poker audience to follow the hands where some kind of drama happens. She defines the term "the nuts" incorrectly at one point, but other than that, the game scenes were done quite well; they looked and felt — and sounded — like poker. The settings — the hotel rooms, the tables, Molly's appearance and the appearances of her dealers — get steadily more luxurious as she moves from a $10,000 buy-in game in the basement of an LA club to the $250,000 buy-in game in New York that she fatefully decides to start raking.

But all is not well under the facade of expensive liquor and suites at the The Plaza. While Molly starts her business off squeaky-clean — no rake, registered as a legitimate business, faithfully reporting every cent she earns to the IRS and paying her taxes — vulnerabilities start piling up, and the higher the stakes are, the bigger the vulnerabilities get. Molly begins extending credit to regular players, and by the time the FBI shuts down her game, she's got more than $2 million on the streets and no way to collect it. Due to the demands of running multiple games a week, Molly starts taking stimulants to stay awake, developing the drug problem that seems to be a mandatory part of any rise-and-fall crime drama. The high cash volume of her business starts attracting the attention of shady organized crime types, which she doesn't recognize and has no way of protecting herself from: First, she gets beat up and robbed when she turns down an offer of "protection" from the Italian mafia; later, a bunch of wealthy, friendly Russian Jews join her game. By this point, Molly is stretched too thin (and is too coked up) to realize that her player screening mechanisms are inadequate, and that members of no less than three separate Russian mafia operations are happily laundering money through her game several times a week.

I'm not giving anything away here — the basic rise-and-fall is known pretty much from the get-go, since the second scene in the movie is Bloom getting arrested. The core question of the movie is if Molly is going to stay out of prison, and if so, how. This is where Sorkin's hand at the wheel is an important strength, because the legal questions that structure this plotline aren't inherently visually dramatic and could easily be confusing to audiences unfamiliar with the inner workings of the criminal justice system. But making institutional wonkery into something watchable is pretty much what Sorkin does, when he’s not showing off how much stuff he can Google.

Jessica Chastain

Jessica Chastain (photo by STX Films)

There is also a subplot about Molly's incredibly demanding father, played by Kevin Costner. Costner is brilliant at getting the audience to feel almost 30 years' worth of anger and resentment at him in the space of two and a half hours; his character is a psychologist and incredibly smug about it, and also deeply annoying. His psychoanalysis of Molly credits (or blames; I think he's trying to go for blames) himself for her entire poker management career, because it's definitely not like anybody would just find poker or events management or building their own business up from nothing to be exciting or fulfilling career paths on their own. He is the pure distilled essence of Overbearing Parent of Overachieving Children, and I got stressed out just listening to him. So I guess that's effective characterization.

The guys who populate Molly's games, however, are the real gems in terms of secondary characters. The players, no matter how wealthy or shady they get, and no matter how luxe the games grow, remain the exact same mix of scowling bros slouching in their hoodies and gregarious bros in tacky shirts — visually identical to what you'll see on any televised high roller tournament, except with terrible, undisciplined play. Even the Russians, who are verbally identified as "playing in coats and ties," show up in sweaters instead. (I think being underdressed relative to their surroundings is actively fun for some guys.) Only two players in all of the games are any good: the infamously abusive Player X, played with great low-key sinisterness by Michael Cera and who is probably based on Tobey Maguire; and a quietly grouchy older gentleman called Harlan, the best player in the game right up until he goes epically on tilt. Brian D'Arcy James is disarmingly genial as "Bad Brad," a hedge fund manager who might be the most contentedly terrible poker player in the world (if you don't mind spoilers, you can Google "Bradley Ruderman" to find out why).

But my personal favorite player was Douglas Downey (Chris O'Dowd with a terrible mustache), a maudlin drunk with a huge annoying crush on Molly. Being a drunk apparently does not stop Douglas from attempting to have the usual Sorkinesque conversations with people, and the results are delightfully loopy — for the audience, if not for Molly, whose endless patience in babysitting her charges starts to fray sometime around when Douglas confuses her for the Molly Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses. His botched attempt at reciting poetry got howls of laughter from the audience both times I saw the movie.

Someday, perhaps, there will be a poker movie that is not a crime drama — perhaps a sports movie, if the "poker is a sport" people win that argument. In the meantime, we need fresh spins on the venerable gangster movie genre, and Molly's Game is an excellent one: With the gangsters themselves barely in it, we instead get the story of an enterprising businesswoman applying wits and drive to build a glamorous, $4-million-a-year business in a male-dominated field, and taking on the federal government when it all goes wrong. While I maintain that Molly Bloom is a terrible role model for teenage girls, Chastain's Molly is a power fantasy for women as much as a provider of fantasies for men. Molly's Game made me want not just to get back to the tables as soon as possible, but to host the fanciest home game I could pull off, and to seriously improve my eyeshadow skills. I'll leave the "getting in massive legal trouble" to others, though.

'Molly's Game' a much-needed poker movie is republished from
Clare Fitzgerald

As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.
Clare Fitzgerald
As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.