I love poker, so a movie about high-stakes underground Texas Holdem sounded like a good bet.
From the start of the film, this was recognizably an Aaron Sorkin movie (he wrote the screenplay, and it’s also his directorial debut). Everyone talked in fast, extended monologues, and no one let up for a moment on being sharp and witty. The actors (Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner) were fantastic, and all that dialog had a knack for tying up every potential plot hole with bow after pretty little bow, without resorting to obvious exposition.
Yet by the end, I felt let down. I had a strong feeling that the writing was cheating—that the screenplay was almost certainly taking liberties with the real story that inspired the movie, and that it was transparently downplaying anything that could make Molly less sympathetic.
“So, wait a minute,” you might say… “Molly was running an illegal casino by taking a rake, right? Plus, all that cash she was making by the Prada handbag full… she did it without paying taxes, right? And not at some medium-stakes home game, but as a serious business?”
Well, yes, I suppose you could say that if you’re an unreasonable asshole narc. And didn’t I already tell you repeatedly throughout the film that Molly didn’t have a choice? If she hadn’t started taking a rake, she couldn’t have afforded the losses from when players didn’t pay back the huge credit she extended to them, unless she resorted to breaking their legs. Yes, the loans were for purely business reasons, but not breaking legs makes her a hero! And besides, although it might have been one of the highest stakes illegal casinos ever, she only ran it that way for six months. Couldn’t those government assholes let it slide? She’s the victim of overzealous police and prosecution. Didn’t you see how the IRS wanted taxes on her unreported income? She should get a pass on paying her taxes since illegal gambling income gets seized. Where’s the humanity?
I’m not done. You know what else makes her a victim? That she was taking drugs. You see, given that she’s a hero-victim, the drugs obviously weren’t about the lifestyle she made for herself. She had to take the drugs because poker games can last a long time and she needed to stay awake. Nothing could run without her, at least if you ignore all the staff she hired. Oh, and about that central plot point where she refuses to cooperate on the prosecution of the mob because it would make her famous clients look bad? That’s what makes her a fucking hero more than anything.
… I was so close to seeing it their way. If only they’d machine-gunned even sharper monologues at me, and played even triumphal-er music at just the right moments.
So yeah, I guess that all rubbed me the wrong way, despite the movie being quite good on the surface. But worst of all, in the end, I didn’t feel like I understood or learned much about Molly or her poker games. I mean, running an underground ultra-high-stakes poker room for celebrities, business moguls, and mobsters already makes her fucking cool. Succeeding to the degree she did makes her a badass. I just wish they’d portrayed her as the interesting gray character she seemed to be and didn’t try so hard to turn her into an inspirational heroine.
Verdict: Q7 offsuit, under the gun.
P.S. Apparently I was right to be skeptical about elements of the movie. After writing this, I learned Molly didn’t have a career-ending skiing fall (a foundational plot point in the film), her first game wasn’t taken away from her by “Player X,” and her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (the second main character, played by Idris Elba) was entirely fictional. Ordinary Hollywood dramatization, perhaps, but I’ll stick to being difficult.
P.P.S. A poker movie I loved is Rounders (1998). If you like poker and haven’t seen it yet, I’m excited for you. It stars Edward Norton, Matt Damon, and John Malkovich’s outrageously fake Russian accent. Seriously, his accent is one of the most memorable things about the film. It just might be the worst Russian accent in all of cinema, but it’s a lot of fun.
Appendix: A Followup Conversation With Robert
Following is a lightly edited version of a conversation I had with my friend Robert after I wrote this review. Robert was a full-time professional poker player for several years and is the most knowledgeable person about poker I know.
Robert: You are a good writer. You almost made me care about someone’s opinion on the morality of running a home poker game.
Me: Haha. To be clear, I didn’t want to convey and don’t have a moral stance on the characters in the movie—it all seemed quite cool. I just didn’t like being told what to think about it. Or maybe I’m being contrarian.
Robert: I thought you were refreshingly cynical in the review and I liked that. You sounded a bit more like grumpy me. I totally get losing suspension of disbelief when they jerk for tears, etc. I can hardly enjoy movies these days due to that. But your review made me want to check it out! I hadn’t heard of it.
If you haven’t read The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King, you should. I looked up Molly’s Game to watch it, and noticed it said Andy Beal used to play at her games. The book I mentioned is the best poker story I’ve read. It’s about him trying to beat the best pros in poker by simply playing higher stakes than they had. He almost did it, but Phil Ivey saved the “corporation” (the group of pros who took him on), taking millions from him in a day and making him quit.
Me: I’ll have to check it out!
Robert: Watching the Molly movie now. It definitely comes across as still selling and hustling. And it’s long AF.
Oh god, there was none of that music till the end when she’s complaining about being a felon who can’t vote.
And I totally get your take now. It’s getting self indulgent at the end. Plus I wonder how much of this is true.
But she seems to go out of her way to explain why she can’t name names, why she didn’t report home invasion to police, etc.
Me: Yeah, I liked it most of the way through, but by the end I’d started questioning why they were selling her so hard. Yes, she goes out of her way to explain that she wants to avoid embarrassment of people who didn’t commit crimes, but IMO they sell that way too hard as a virtue. It’s their central point for why she has exceptional character and fortitude, and why she should be admired by we the audience. But I don’t really buy it. Plus it’s an example of where I suspect the writing is cheating. How does she know her messages don’t have info that could help FBI cases? We just have to take her word for it.
My guess is it wasn’t really so black and white, and that part of it was she wanted to live by and be known for never snitching. But if that’s what they said in the movie, they couldn’t have sold her as a role model in the same way. IMO they only used her lawyer’s skepticism about why she was defending her friends and former clients as a way to sell herself even more forcefully, not as a genuine question for the audience to think about. In the end, she clearly “does the right thing” when no one else would, from the point of view of the filmmakers. But yeah, I think it would have been a more interesting movie if she had merely done the right thing according to her own value system, even though some of the audience might not agree with her.
Also, what was that nonsense about her deciding mid-hand and with no prior warning to her players about taking $50k off the table in a rake? Bullshit. She would have had to tell them in advance, and it most likely would have been for every pot, not just monsters. Their explanation of why she had to do it on monster pots didn’t make sense. It’s not the size of the bets that affect her, only the size of her loans, which she had total control over.
So again, the writing is cheating there and seems to be trying to remove any potential for viewers to disagree with her choices.
Robert: They really do sell her super hard. I’ve never seen a movie that seemed so much like it was made by the person it’s about. And yeah the rake scene made no sense. That would have broken the game but the players don’t even mention it. Plus the whole rake justification was dumb. If she didn’t want exposure, she just didn’t have to loan money. I never loaned a cent when I ran a poker game in a casino, because I saw how my buddy kept getting stiffed, and I didn’t give a rat’s ass if that would make the rake lower from people leaving (or lower tips in her case). So yeah, the whole justification for being illegal (though I could not give one shit about this kind of crime) was dumb. It was just a way for her to make more money, nothing more.
But at least the movie had like two decent poker scenes, which is two more than the average poker movie.
Anyway, thanks for getting me to watch a movie I didn’t know about!
Me: Sure thing, man.
Actually, would you be opposed to me including this conversation in an appendix for the review?
Robert: Sure, go for it.