An overachiever ditches law school in favor of running poker games. Based on the memoirs of Molly Bloom, Molly’s Game is the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin (who also wrote the screenplay) and another acting triumph for Jessica Chastain.
I first saw Chastain in Lawless and I’ve been impressed since. I loved her in Miss Sloane; I loved her even better in Molly’s Game.
And Sorkin? I’ve been a fan of his screenplays since The American President and he hasn’t disappointed me yet. I do miss The Newsroom terribly though.
But what makes Molly’s Game special aside from Chastain and Sorkin? First, the fact that it’s based on real life events. Second, it’s curious how an intelligent woman who would have likely been successful in any profession she had chosen elected to run poker games instead. Third, that psychoanalytic part about how deeply buried memories from our past may be responsible for major decisions we make in life.
Molly Bloom is one of the three children of a psychology professor (Kevin Costner). She was training for the Olympics when an accident ended her career as an athlete. She took a year off before going to law school, roomed with a friend in Los Angeles and got work as a waitress. She met a shady real estate developer, Dean, who hired her as his office manager and, eventually, to organize his underground poker games that were attended by movie stars, sports celebrities and millionaires in the financial industry.
Molly didn’t know anything about poker but, given her above-average IQ and natural curiosity for learning just about anything that could be learned, she was soon well-versed in poker lingo. From the tips, she was also making a lot more than her regular salary as office manager.
When Dean fired her from the real estate office job (which also meant she was out of the poker games), she went to set up her own poker games. She used the contacts she had made from Dean’s operation and managed to win over some of the regulars, including the most successful one, Player X, a movie star. She made sure to make everything legal by not taking “rakes” (percentage of the pot).
After a falling out with Player X, Molly knew that her L.A. poker games had come to an end. She moved her operation to New York where she became even more successful. Soon, Russian Jews were playing in her games. She became addicted to drugs. To protect herself from financial loses, she took her dealer’s advice to start taking in “rakes”. Then, when she refused to partner with the Italian mafia, she got beaten up.
The New York poker games came to an end after a player, Douglas Downey, was investigated by the FBI for running a Ponzi scheme and started to talk about the poker games and who frequented them. Molly was arrested, her assets were frozen and, bankrupt, she moved back into her mother’s house. To make money, she published her memoir but refused to name her regular poker players except those whose names had already been given by Downey to the FBI.
Facing trial for illegal gambling with the mafia, Molly hired Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) who, after reading her book, was convinced that her part in the poker operation did not merit the prison term sought by the prosecution.
Around the same time, Molly’s father sought her out to attempt a reconciliation. Ever the psychologist, he told her that her thrill in running poker games was rooted in a desire to control men—a subconscious rebellion against him for being a controlling father and for discovering, at age five, that he had been cheating on her mother.
Molly pleaded guilty but a magnanimous judge who believed there were more and bigger crooks in Wall Street than Molly, handed down a sentence of community service, probation, and a $200,000 fine.
How many of the scenes happened in real life and how much was dramatization and representative composites, I do not know. I have not read the book. In fact, I didn’t even know until after we saw the film and my daughter, Alex, started Googling her name that Molly Bloom is a real person. Molly’s Game is two hours and twenty minutes long but there was never a boring moment. And that I attribute to the tightly-written screenplay filled with the glorious verbosity that made me a fan of Sorkin to start with, and Jessica Chastain’s outstanding performance.
Molly’s Game may be about poker games, it might make your head spin with poker terms but it won’t teach you how to play poker. What it will show you is how a top-notch mind works. Molly Bloom is a complex character. The trick to appreciating her story is to not pass moral judgment on actions she took and decisions she made.