Pick a card, any card.
Only 52 to choose from, you know. They're shuffled well, and no one's marking them, so you never know what you might draw. A three? Jack? Ace? Who knows? Every card game is a game of chance, when you get right to it. It doesn't matter if you're playing solitaire or crazy 8s or Texas hold 'em. Your fate turns on the turn of a card.
Then again, the phrase if you play your cards right became a cliché for a reason.
Molly Bloom began with a solid hand. Her father pushed Molly hard in everything she did—pushed her, in fact, almost into the Olympics as a freestyle skier. She grew up in a relatively stable home with no obvious disadvantages. She has a couple of aces in her hand, too: her obvious smarts and her unflagging drive. Success is hers for sure.
Then Molly draws her next card: a scary fall during the Olympic tryouts—one that could've easily snapped her surgically repaired spine. She survives. She recovers. But her Olympic dreams vanish.
She gets to choose her next card: Law school? Not just yet. "I wanted to be young for a while in warm weather," she says. So she goes to Los Angeles and takes a job as a waitress at a booming night club, encouraging twice-loaded patrons to spend freely. She grabs another gig as an office assistant. Both are just meant to pay the bills and bide her time before she settles into a real career.
Molly draws a wildcard next: Dean Keith. He sees her charisma, her talent, her drive and offers her a job as his personal assistant. And even though Dean's a lousy boss and a terrible person, he does introduce Molly into a little business wrinkle of his: a high-stakes poker game he runs out of L.A.'s Viper Lounge, one attended by a legion of deep-pocketed businessmen, sports figures and celebs. Could she help him run the game, Dean asks?
Molly arrives in her best dress—she bought it for $88 at J.C. Penney—and collects $10,000 from every poker player who walks through the doors. Dean asks the players to tip her at the end of the night and, just like that, she's $3,000 richer. (Spend it on a new dress, Dean suggests.)
So it goes for weeks and months.
It wouldn't last, of course. It couldn't. Molly was paid to be charmingly efficient, but Dean's butter-soft ego wouldn't allow Molly to be too charming, too efficient. And one day, he makes the call that Molly always knew he'd make.
"You're unimportant," he spits. "You're fired."
A tough card, to be sure, but the game's not over. Molly still has a face card to play. She has numbers for all of Dean's regular gamblers in her phone. She sends one simple text to them all: There's a new game in town. Buy in? $50,000.
Dean tried to cut Molly out. Molly cuts him out instead. She's running the show: She has all the cards, all the chips, all the players. It's Molly's game now.
Or so it would seem. But sometimes, early successes can lead to big failures as the game wears on. What seems like a winning hand could end up losing the pot.
Let's not pretend Molly is a paragon of moral rectitude. But in the murky world she inhabits, she had standards. Her customers couldn't buy the game, and they couldn't buy her. Her parlors were places where rules still stood, and her well-heeled players—gamblers who outside those confines could buy most anything—found that refreshing.
She gave herself a rule, too: Never deal and tell. When she tries to sell a book about her career, publishers tell her that she could garner a huge advance if she names names, identifying the moves and shakers she catered to. She refuses and accepts a much lower advance. And she stays true to that ideal, for better or worse, 'til the end.
Molly also tries to help some of her players. When a gambler spirals out of control, she encourages him to go home. When someone racks up a debt he can't pay, she sits him down and tells him that he needs to talk to his wife and confess everything. "Tell her what happened," she says. "I'm going to help you. Get you to a [Gambler's Anonymous] meeting. Figure out what to do about the money." She gently tells one rich-but-inept gambler that perhaps this isn't his game.
While Molly and her father have a very difficult relationship, Molly eventually appreciates his "encouragement." "You know how many girls at the Olympics have demanding fathers?" she rhetorically asks her lawyer, Charlie. "All of them?" he says. Her dad, Larry, loves her, too. "I'm your father," he says. "Trying to comprehend how much I love you would be like trying to visualize the size of the universe."
We hear references to The Crucible, Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials, which Charlie makes his daughter read. Molly tells the girl that no accused witches were ever burned at the stake in Salem: They were hanged or drowned or crushed instead.
Molly compares herself to Circe, the goddess in Homer's Odyssey who lures men to her island only to turn them into pigs. We hear an offhand mention of "Christmas miracles." When something unexpectedly positive happens, Molly says, "Sometimes God happens fast." In an effort to attract Russian gamblers, Molly presents herself (perhaps half-jokingly) as a "Russian Jew."
"I never traded sex for money," Molly tells Federal prosecutors. "Still not sure if [the conversation is on] the record, but if there is, I want to make certain that was in it."
She's telling the truth, though she does flirt with a few customers. She and others often wear glamorous gowns that showcase curves and cleavage; in New York she hires a bevy of alluring women described as former Playboy Playmates to work the gambling parlor with her.
Molly takes a shower in which we see her back. In flashback, a 14-year-old Molly says that she believes that marriage is a "trap." As an adult, though, she expresses a longing to settle down and have kids. We hear intimations of unfaithfulness among Molly's regular gamblers.
There's a reference to a woman whom Larry says "doesn't like men." Molly corrects him: "She doesn't like d--ks, Dad. There's a difference."
[Spoiler Warning] Molly's father was unfaithful to his wife throughout their marriage. Molly's known since she was just five, when (we're told) she saw Larry in a car with another woman but didn't comprehend what she saw. But she knew, Larry insists. "I knew you knew." And some of his strict, unloving attitude toward her was "how I reacted to the shame."
As a kid, Molly suffers a back ailment. We see the aftermath of the surgery to correct the condition—lots of bloody incision marks and stitches around her spine—and we learn that the doctors told her that she should probably not ski anymore. But she does. Years later, during the Olympic trials, she has a serious accident: One of her skis somehow uncouples right before a twisting flip and she lands hard. We see her body bounce and tumble along the ground and her bloodied face afterward.
When the Mob approaches Molly to "partner" with her operation and provide muscle to collect debts, Molly refuses. She's later attacked in her apartment building: She's punched in the face, kicked and slammed into the wall until she's bloodied and bruised. Before the Mafia thug leaves, he forces her to open her mouth and sticks the muzzle of a gun in it. The implied threat is clear: If she doesn't agree to work with the Mob, she'll be killed. Later, Molly leaves red bloodstains on her white apartment walls and, when she takes a shower, blood runs copiously down her spine. FBI agents also point guns at Molly during an arrest.
Crude or Profane Language
Nearly 30 uses of the f-word and another dozen or so of the s-word. We also hear "a--," "b--ch," "h---" and "n-gger." Crass words for various anatomical parts are sometimes lobbed. God's name is misused four times, once with "d--n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Gambling and mind-altering substances often go hand in hand here. Molly says that in her early days, she was drug-free and made good decisions. But as her games grew more popular and she added more poker nights to her schedule, she started taking drugs to stay awake and alert—everything from the prescription drug Adderall to cocaine. Then she'd take something else to bring her back down. Toward the end of her run she admits, "I was addicted to drugs—anything that could keep me up for a few days and knock me out for a few hours." When she hears that police are raiding her games, she hurriedly flushes bags of white powder down the toilet. She admits that she's an alcoholic, too.
Molly cleans herself up, though. And by the time she meets and hires Charlie, she's been alcohol- and drug-free for a couple of years.
Plenty of folks drink heavily while playing poker. One regular seems perpetually drunk, at one point proposing marriage to Molly in a wobble-headed slur. People smoke while playing poker. Scenes in nightclubs are soaked with alcoholic beverages and besotted with drunken revelers. Lawyers prosecuting Molly's case believe she's knee-deep with the Russian Mob.
We hear a reference to the drug MDMA, sometimes called by the street name Molly.
Other Negative Elements
Obviously, gambling is at the very core of Molly's Game: We hear so much about poker that by the time the movie's over, some gambling novices may feel like they have enough knowledge to play a few hands in Vegas.
Most of the time, Molly's games are strictly legit: Neither New York nor L.A., where Molly operates, prohibit the sort of private games that Molly sponsors. As long as she was paid in tips—not "taking a rake," or skimming money off the top of the pot—everything is considered legal. That said, she does eventually start taking a rake, leaving her vulnerable to criminal prosecution.
Molly's games often attract unsavory characters, including the head of a Ponzi scheme (who bilked several gamblers out of millions) and several folks who wind up being connected to the Russian mob. One gambler admits that for him, the thrill isn't in the win. It's in "destroying lives." We see someone try to sneak non-game chips into a game.
When explaining the inner drive that led her to become the unlikely impresario of a multi-million-dollar gambling operation, Molly has a simple explanation: "I was raised to be a champion. My goal was to win. At what and against whom? Those were just details."
But the devil's in the details, as they say, and there are plenty of little devils here. Yes, Molly has some strong principles. But she stands upon them in an already morally comprised netherworld. And even as she attempts to improve that netherworld in some small ways, she still preys upon the sins and weaknesses of her clients, all while developing a few of her own. Molly's self-comparison to Circe from Grecian myth is apt: Like that Greek goddess, she lured her customers into what seemed to be a paradise and watched them turn to swine—swine who drink and smoke and leer until the sun rises and they find themselves perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars poorer.
This is not to say that this film is without merit. It's riveting, well-written and superlatively performed. It even has a moral of sorts, as well as a few surprisingly heart-warming moments. But in the end, Molly's Game may leave viewers feeling like they're holding a bust hand: cards that look promising, but that add up to nothing.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom; Idris Elba as Charlie Jaffey; Kevin Costner as Larry Bloom; Michael Cera as Player X; Jeremy Strong as Dean Keith; Chris O'Dowd as Douglas Downey; J.C. MacKenzie as Harrison Wellstone; Brian d'Arcy James as Brad; Bill Camp as Harlan Eustice; Graham Greene as Judge Foxman
Aaron Sorkin ( )
January 5, 2018
April 10, 2018