As with most vices I’ve spent most of my life avoiding gambling as an activity in all its forms. I don’t go to casinos, I don’t bet on sports, and I don’t even play the lottery. That having been said in the last couple of years I’ve developed a fascination with the game of Texas Hold ‘Em poker. I never play it mind you, not for money anyway, but I watch a number of Youtube channels about the game and when high profile tournaments are televised or are being live streamed I try to check them out. This does not make watching movies that have poker scenes in them all that much easier because poker scenes in movies are often kind of ridiculous. Most poker hands involve one dude with a pair and one dude with an ace high and end with one or the other folding because the other shows the slightest bit of aggression. The poker scenes in Casino Royale are basically science fiction scenarios with ridiculously large hands showing up on the regular, but then the movies that actually seem to take the game seriously end up being these mediocrities like Rounders and Lucky You. But my eyebrow still pops up a little when a movie involving poker pops up and I was particularly curious when I heard about the film Molly’s Game, which was going to tell one of the more famous stories in the world of poker and would be the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin to boot.
The film looks at the true events surrounding a woman named Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) who achieves fortune and infamy running underground poker games that were attended by movies stars, athletes, millionaires, and billionaires. As the film begins Bloom, who has quit running poker games and wrote a book about her experiences, is being arrested as part of a wider crackdown on the Russian mafia under the belief that her games were part of a money laundering scheme, forcing her to seek out a high paid attorney named Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). From there we flash back to her childhood, where she was pressured to be an over-achiever by her father Larry (Kevin Costner) and became a highly successful skier before having that career cut short by an injury. We then watch as she moves to L.A. and finds herself working as an assistant for an asshole Hollywood producer, and part of that job is to help organize his weekly high stakes poker night in the basement of The Viper Room which is attended by a number of big name directors and actors including one the movie calls Player X (Michael Cera) who is by all accounts based on Tobey Maguire. Eventually things sour with the producer and rather than let him run things she simply starts up her own card game and poaches all his players.
One of the strengths of Molly’s Game is that it manages to not feel like a ripoff of Goodfellas despite basically having all the elements of one. This is after all a movie telling the true story of the rise and fall of a crime empire of sorts through a briskly edited romp with voice over narration from the person at the center of it all. Part of why this feels different might be the absence of anyone getting wacked and part of it might be its flashback structure or the lack of classic rock over the montages. Really though I think it just comes down to the fact that it’s a movie that doesn’t exude machismo. Unlike Martin Scorsese Aaron Sorkin does not come from “the streets” and he’s also a grown-up who isn’t terribly interested in seeming like a tough guy the way that most of the young filmmakers who are prone to ripping off Goodfellas are. Also, perhaps more obviously, the person at the center of this movie is a woman and not one who’s trying to be an heir to Scarface. Where most gangsters build their empires on being “respected” (I.E. feared), she built hers essentially on social skills, organization, and psychology.
Molly herself is pretty impressive as a person despite her flaws, and Jessica Chastain brings her to life with some clear star power. This is also of course a film by Aaron Sorkin and you can certainly tell he wrote it though there a bit more restraint then there could have been. The theory among critics is that Sorkin works best when his screenplays were interpreted by directors with somewhat icy directorial styles like David Fincher and Bennet Miller to dilute out some of his cornier ideas, but he seems to do a pretty good job of holding himself back while directing this one. That said, he’s still clearly not a master filmmaker behind the camera. There are certainly moments that are more visually ambitious than what he normally does with his television work but none of them really blew me away in their execution and the overall style here doesn’t really rise much above the level of “average.” There also doesn’t ultimately seem to be much of a point to all this beyond the fact that it’s an interesting true story. The things that make Molly tick ultimately aren’t all that deep or complicated, though that doesn’t stop them from outlining all of them via pop psychology in one rather on the nose scene towards the end, and the movie is also occasionally a bit too in love with her for her own good. Her ultimate claim to sympathy is that she’s very intent to keep all the dirty secrets of the famous people at her games… which maybe explains why it’s as well liked as it is at industry awards shows in 2017… and that she isn’t a murderer. At certain points it’s argued that it’s an injustice that Molly being prosecuted when white collar criminals who’ve done worse are often not prosecuted as vigorously, which is true, but there are also poor black kids who’ve done even less and get prosecuted even more vigorously so Molly’s position as an underdog in the legal system seems a bit dubious.
Ultimately, Molly’s Game is merely a good movie and that’s okay. It used to be that dramas like this had a lot less pressure on them. Hollywood would put them out regularly and they could serve as solid populist entertainment, but these days movies like this are immediately vetted to see if they’re Oscar-worthy and if they aren’t they get pushed aside. I wouldn’t consider this movie to be high art but there’s certainly plenty of good in it. Should you see this in place of all the other great movies that are out in theaters right now? Probably not. But if you’ve seen all of those or you’re in the mood for something lighter and this sounds interesting give it a watch. And if you miss this in theaters, go ahead and give it a rental or catch it on HBO because it’s definitely the kind of movie that makes for a good casual viewing.