March 25, 2020
Molly's Game (2017)
Grade: 66/100

Director: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner

What it's about. Molly (Jessica Chastain) is an educated young woman with an overbearing father (Kevin Costner) who demands perfection and achievement. She leaves home for Los Angeles and a legal career, but is quickly diverted into running a high-stakes weekly poker game. The game is dominated by Player X (Michael Cera), whose goal is to ruin the lives of the other players by taking all their money.

Eventually, Player X fires Molly over a financial disagreement. She moves to New York and starts up another big weekly poker game, but it all falls apart after she is beated up by a gangster and the Feds take down the Russian mob.

Molly is facing prison and poverty. She is represented by Charlie (Idris Elba). The courtroom judge is Graham Greene.

How others will see it. Aaron Sorkin's film career is primarily as a writer. He has been highly successful: a blizzard of festival circuit wins and nominations, including seven Golden Globes nods.

But as a director? It turns out that Molly's Game is his first-ever credit as director. And it was also successful. Although the award nominations were mostly for the script, and Jessica Chastain's gritty performance, the Director's Guild of America did nominate Sorkin for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in First-Time Feature Film. He lost to Jordan Peele and Get Out. Peele had more buzz.

How I felt about it. There were things about Molly's Game that I didn't like. For example, Charlie tells Molly that his daughter Stella (Whitney Peak) admires Molly. What for?

Molly is the female counterpart of Player X. The goal is to put men through the rollers and squeeze as much juice out of them as possible. Damn the consequences to their lives. So, beyond the addiction to Adderall, and operating an illegal gambling ring financed with gangster money, and pleading guilty to felonies, and ruining the lives of "fish", it's really all just a triumph for girrrl power, right? Something to admire?

Charlie observes that Molly is friendless. She is also loveless, and appears to have been so throughout her life. Her controlling father instilled in his children that accomplishments are all that matter. Relationships just get in the way. I can understand why Molly rejects the passes of drunken gambling addicts who are married and twice her age. I don't understand why a ruthless shark like her doesn't begin a relationship with a flush celebrity and take him for what he's worth. It would fit the pattern. Molly is either leaving something important out of her story, or she is phobic of any kind of personal relationship, even when it would be objectively beneficial for her.

Then there's the exaggerations. I did brief research of her actual story, versus what is in the film. The Feds seized her assets, but they were a small fraction of the 4M mentioned over and over again in the film. And the gambling pool buy-ins in New York were much closer to 10K instead of 250K. One also figures that the characters are exaggerated as well, especially Bad Brad; the drunk with book titles for conversation openers; the "tight" gambler who completely folds after he loses one hand to bluffing Bad Brad; and Dean, the jerk boss.

Even the father isn't fully believable. He would tell his daughter that he had been cheating on her mother since Molly was five instead of 20? The judge isn't believable either. Every broker on Wall Street is a greater criminal than Molly, the money launderer for Russian mobsters?

What is believable is that a merciless gangster invaded her home, and beat her and robbed her. She didn't deserve it, but she was asking for it. Why did Willie Sutton rob banks? Because that's where the money was. And she didn't even hire a bodyguard.

The exaggerations reminded me of another acclaimed Sorkin script, The Social Network, which has our ambitious young heroes snorting coke off the chests of underaged prostitutes. When you regularly make something more shocking than it is, you quickly lose credibility. The truth is interesting without ornamentation, if you trust both yourself and the audience.

Nonetheless, Molly's Game is a good movie. And, yes, the script has a lot to do with it. It helps that the writer is also the director. Fewer disagreements that way. Clearer vision. Chastain is good, Elba is better, and men are jerks.