My second movie review of the year, and it’s another biopic – the life story of Molly Bloom, or as she’s known in most circles – the “Poker Princess”. Before we delve into an analysis of history vs. Hollywood, let’s take a look at the story as the movie tells it. Molly Bloom, daughter of an ambitious and very pushy father Larry, is an accomplished skier. During the final stages of qualifying for the Salt Lake City Olympics, a cruel act of fate causes Molly to have a terrible accident after she collides with a twig in the snow. Abandoning her skiing career, she moves to L.A. to stay on a friend’s couch for a year, before going to law school. That’s the plan anyway. She takes up a waitressing job, which eventually leads to a personal assistant job for a really vile real estate entrepreneur. As with most PA jobs, she is often tasked with very random assignments and one day he tells her he needs her to organise what will become his weekly poker game at the Cobra Lounge. He gives her a list of numbers to text and the rest is up to Molly and Google.
Although no names are mentioned, we are told that the poker games attracted Hollywood A-listers, professional athletes, politicians, and Wall Street billionaires. Players were encouraged to tip Molly generously if they wanted to be invited back, and that’s how she made $3000 on her first night. This certainly motivated her to learn as much as she possibly could about poker and to run a tight ship. With Molly doing practically all the work, and an increasingly abusive boss who eventually fired her because “she was making too much money”, it didn’t take long before Molly made the poker games her own. With the help of a character denoted “Player X”, Molly essentially “steals” her former boss’s weekly poker game and moves it to an upmarket hotel. She is very careful to make sure she isn’t breaking any laws. The laws are clear. As long as she isn’t taking anything from the pot, she’s fine. Everything is going well until she discovers that Player X is lending money to other players in the game. That means he has a vested interest in the outcome of hands he’s involved in. This will ruin Molly’s credibility. She needs to get rid of Player X. But when she does, he takes everyone with him and Molly’s Game in L.A. is essentially over.
I know what you’re thinking – this would be the perfect time to go to Law School, right? Probably. But instead, Molly decides to move to New York and start a game there, and this is where the lines begin to blur. She’s still running a tight ship, she always has, doing thorough back-checks on her players to make sure they can cover the bets they place. But she is also taking a lot of drugs so that she can survive on very little sleep to keep a lot of games running at once. People are screwing her over and Molly, refusing to resort to violence, is writing the cheques to cover their debt. She is haemorrhaging money and has to cover it somehow. So, she started taking a percentage of the pot, and that is when Molly Bloom broke a federal law. After a raid in 2011, all of her assets were seized by the FBI.
Finally, Molly stopped running games. She wrote a book, “Molly’s Game”, but she refused to name the names of any of her high-flying players and as a result there wasn’t much interest from publishers. The book was published, but she received a miniscule advance. Then two years later, the FBI came knocking again. This time she was being charged with profiting from hosting illegal games. It was part of a larger scale investigation into the Russian mob and money laundering operations. Unbeknownst to her, high profile members of the Russian mob had been some of her most loyal customers and the FBI were convinced she had intel on them. It was time for Molly to lawyer up. Enter Idris Elba. *sigh* Oh how I love a bit of Idris. With his $250 000 retainer, Charlie Jaffey’s treatment of his young daughter who spends her after-school hours in his office is oddly reminiscent of Molly’s relationship with her own dad. Jaffey, who has already read part of Molly’s book, is reluctant to take her on as a client, least of all because he knows she has no money. He can’t understand her unwavering determination to protect the names of her former clients who are absolutely nowhere in sight now, even though she is in desperate need of their help, even if only through an anonymous donation. Molly is offered various deals for her cooperation but her unwavering determination to protect her name means that she faces real jail time.
It might sound like I should have lead with *spoiler alert* but in truth, knowing most of the story doesn’t ruin the film. In fact, the trailer itself tells you as much. The story is told magnificently, jumping between past and present, it has you on the edge of your seat. Molly is an incredible character, with such complexity and so many dimensions to her, you really are in awe of her and what she managed to achieve with nothing more than her wits and a great deal of determination. There are a great deal of other interesting characters thrown into the mix too and it can be fun to speculate who they might have been in real life.
When it comes down to history vs Hollywood, this one stuck pretty close to the truth. Unlike the opening sequence however, it wasn’t a skiing accident that lead to Molly hanging up her skis for good, rather just a desire for change. The “Cobra Lounge” where the poker games first began was really the “Viper Room”, the infamous club owned by Johnny Depp, where actor River Phoenix famously died from a drug overdose in 1993. The characters’ names in the movie are changed but for the most part, everything else is 100% true. She did make $3000 in tips her first night. Her boss was a dick. She did steal the game from him. The game did get stolen back from her. She did move the game to New York. She unknowingly let members of the Russian mob join her game. She became addicted to drugs. She got beaten up for refusing to pay protection money. She started taking a cut from the pot and she got bust by the FBI. She wrote a book to try and make some money. She got bust by the FBI again.
The biggest difference: Charlie Jaffey is entirely fictional. Molly Bloom’s real-life lawyer was named Jim Walden. No disrespect to Walden, but Jaffey’s character allowed the filmmakers to add an extra dimension to the film that allowed us to compare Molly’s relationship with her dad to Jaffey’s relationship with his daughter. It also gave them the freedom to make Jaffey judgmental of Molly in ways that didn’t need to be historically accurate to Walden. Plus, we got a bit of Idris, and who doesn’t want a bit of Idris? The one similarity is that they both took her on despite the fact that they knew she didn’t have their $250 000 retainer.
In my research I have watched a few interviews with the real Molly Bloom, and I can’t help but admire her. At no point does she try to excuse her actions. She 100% accepts responsibility for the fact that she broke the law and that she knowingly did so. And even more than that, she admits that she did it out of greed – because she got addicted to the money. The plan had always been to get enough and then get out; but somehow enough was never enough. To add to that, when faced with federal charges, she was offered deals that would give her her $4 million back that the government had seized, and spare her a five-year jail term, in exchange for information and client names. But she refused. Not to protect her clients, but to protect their families and the lives of other, innocent people whose lives would be destroyed, even though they had nothing to do with her games. If that’s not honourable, I don’t know what is.
Jessica Chastain was robbed of an Oscar nomination, absolutely robbed – now I just have to find out by whom. Fortunately, this year I am returning to an old tradition of watching all of the nominated movies, so I should get to the bottom of this travesty of justice soon. I suspect Meryl, with her 21st nomination. It seems to have just become an Oscar tradition that she be nominated. Now I will be the first to admit that she is a genius of her craft and I am sure she was excellent in “The Post”, but she has been nominated for some shockers in the past that have even made her cringe, by her own admission. I really hope Jessica Chastain hasn’t lost out to a token Meryl nomination!
*UPDATE: Last night I watched “Lady Bird” (Review to follow soon-ish) and if not by Meryl, she was definitely robbed by Saoirse Ronan. First of all, a 23-year-old playing a 17-year-old. Um, are there no talented 17-year-old actresses in Hollywood? It was a nice movie. A sweet movie. An enjoyable movie. And she was very good in it. But it was not a challenging part to play. Anyway, that’s enough on that. For now.
In my most level-headed and unbiased opinion, Kevin Costner stole the show. I know I just said Jessica Chastain’s performance is Oscar-worthy and the real Molly Bloom said her depiction of the character was so accurate it creeped her out a little, but Kevin Costner’s performance was so unlike anything I’ve ever seen from him, it really blew me away. My first introduction to the “big screen” was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, at the tender age of four (yes, I know, my parents should probably be reported to child protection services for taking me to see such a violent movie so young) and Kevin and I have shared a special bond ever since. Thus, for him to invoke feelings in me of any level of abhorrence towards him would take a special level of acting (and he made me sit through Mr Brooks and Dances with Wolves). His portrayal of Larry Bloom, Molly’s authoritative, overbearing father who demanded more from her than any parent should ever ask of their child had me wanting to hit him over the head with a frying pan. Yes, Kevin. My beloved Kevin Costner. And then as if that wasn’t enough, he had to do a complete 180 and give her ten years’ worth of therapy on a bench in Central Park (you know how I love the Park) and shower her with emotional truth bombs that had me wanting to call my own dad for a real heart to heart. Anyway, suffice to say, I think he is the unsung hero of this piece.
So really what more to do you need? Riveting storytelling at its best, Oscar-worthy performances (even if no one on the Oscar committee thought so) and a little bit of Idris.