Molly’s Game review: focus on story and characters, not shock value or foul language

Cairns on Cinema

John Cairns

This week my review is Molly’s Game, the new biopic about the infamous “poker princess” who ran multimillion-dollar underground poker games in LA and New York involving the rich and the powerful.

The story is based on the bestselling book of the same name that Bloom wrote a few years ago.

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The reason I hit the road for Saskatoon to see Molly’s Game is because this movie deals with a lot of subject matter that I am personally interested in, like the poker world. And the entertainment world. And of course, the criminal justice system, of which I have more than a passing interest as people who know me realize.

In fact, the courtroom scenes in Molly’s Game reminded me of the numerous times lately that I’ve had to sit in courtroom number one in North Battleford, covering the people responsible for the recent crime mayhem in our community. So even when I go see a movie, I can’t get away from my job.

Anyway, on to the movie review.

The focus of the story is Molly Bloom, played by Jessica Chastain. Molly was a member of the US Ski Team before going down a path that led to her organizing high-stakes poker games in LA for a decade.

Her games attracted the Hollywood elite and the financial movers and shakers. Later, after she moved to New York, her games unwittingly attracted members of the Russian mob – and that ultimately got her in big trouble with the FBI despite her attempts to keep her own involvement above board.

Molly’s Game marks the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, of The West Wing. You can tell that his background in network-TV is a strong influence when it comes to directing this movie, because there is a focus throughout on story and characters, not shock value or foul language.

If I were to describe Molly’s Game in TV-show terms, it is part Poker After Dark and another chunk Law and Order, with some Entourage and Wide World of Sports thrown in for good measure.

If you are expecting a movie full of sex and debauchery, you are going to be disappointed: this is not The Wolf of Wall Street. 

I am convinced this is by design: Sorkin tried to show that Molly was not about debauchery. There are scenes where Molly is forever being interrogated about whether she arranged for hookers to show up at these poker games and the like. It was almost as if the FBI agents expected these poker games to be worse than they were.

So, the world Molly inhabits was not about debauchery. It was about skullduggery, which is different.

One of the main players in the games is Player ”, played by Michael Cera. He portrays a nameless famous Hollywood actor who would routinely take the other players to the cleaners; in reality, everyone thinks that in real life this was Tobey Maguire of Spider-Man fame. A memorable quote from Player X: “I don’t like playing poker. I like destroying lives.”

Another memorable character was a guy referred to as “Bad Brad,” played by Brian d'Arcy James. Brad was “bad” in more ways than one.

For one thing, he was bad at poker. He was an incompetent “fish” who kept on dropping thousands upon thousands of dollars to these other players in poker games. But it was worth it to him because Bad Brad was able to convince all these players to invest even more money in his decidedly shady investment schemes.

The thing I like about this movie is that the characters were memorable and realistic. You really did believe that Jessica Chastain was Molly.   

The poker scenes are realistic, but also surprisingly hilarious. There was one scene where “Bad Brad” unwittingly bluffs his opponent out of all of his money that must be seen to be believed.

Through the story, Molly tells her story about how she navigates through this world.

Unfortunately, what starts out as glamorous, exciting and lucrative takes on a serious tone as the characters and activities become shadier and more dangerous. You really see it late in the movie as it all takes a toll on Molly, as her confident persona melts away and she shows some real vulnerability.  

The overriding question of the movie is: what was it that drove Molly down this dark path to begin with? She could have had it all if she had stayed on the straight and narrow path. She could have become an attorney! Why did she throw it away for the poker life, this life of skullduggery?

That question underscores the scenes where Molly is in the office of her attorney (played by Idris Elba), and particularly the scene late in the movie with her dad, played by Kevin Costner.

If you want my take on it – I think it’s obvious, based on what’s I’ve seen and read about Molly Bloom, that she would have been miserable as a lawyer. For one, she was too big a rebel. For another, Molly was clearly an adrenaline junkie who needed to be where the action was. There was no way a legal career would satisfy that.

I think that even if Molly tried to go the conventional straight-and-narrow path, she ultimately would have quit, and the poker life would have roped her in sooner or later.

There is one more question that comes through clearly from Sorkin, and it is this:

Why the heck was the FBI so interested in Molly Bloom to begin with? Why weren’t these people going after the real crooks on Wall Street? Instead, they’re going after poker games. Don’t these folks have bigger fish to fry?

That’s “fish” as in “more important work to do,” not the poker “fish” who unwittingly hands their chips over to Player X. That’s different.

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