Molly’s Game is a good movie… with a big script problem.
(Actually, it has three story problems, and they’re all connected.)
But there is good news. The film, a fast-paced legal thriller with impressive performances by Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, and the entire supporting cast, is very well-made.
It’s fast-paced and frequently fun.
In other words, it’s… fine.
But what Molly’s Game isn’t, unfortunately, is a must-see movie. And that’s because Molly’s Game missing a crucial ingredient that every story needs in order to grip an audience both logically and emotionally.
Now, to be fair, I think these storytelling problems were nearly unavoidable in this case.
It’s hard enough to maintain your critical distance when a writer is directing from his own script, as screenwriting legend Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) does here in his directorial debut.
But when that script is also based on the life story of the very-much-still-alive-and-watching Molly Bloom, it’s nearly impossible for Sorkin or Bloom to evaluate their story with the same impartial audience POV that a total outsider would have.
So, first, let’s touch on what Molly’s Game does well — which, admittedly, is quite a lot.
(In fact, the film comes so close to being great that its story flaw is doubly frustrating.)
Then, we’ll look at the storytelling missteps in Molly’s Game, and see if they can explain why such a well-crafted A-List film — which was nominated for major awards at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and DGAs — still struggled at the box office.
Here’s What Molly’s Game Gets Right
First, let me make one thing super-clear:
Molly’s Game is an otherwise well-written movie with a big unfortunate flaw.
The dialogue is exactly what you’d expect from a Sorkin script: dense, complex, self-aggrandizing, and literary. For better or worse, no one else does dialogue quite like Aaron Sorkin, which would make Molly’s Game worth seeing just for that benefit alone.
The characters are clearly-defined. Even the smallest supporting roles include quirks that help each character stand out, which is vital for a story that expects the audience to keep track of nearly two dozen recurring characters, almost all of whom are only ever seen around a card table.
Wisely, the script essentially places us in Molly’s POV right from its very first scene. This lets us learn the game of poker as Molly learns it, which allows Sorkin to explain key terms as if the whole audience is new to the game. Thus, both a poker expert and a complete poker newbie can each appreciate the story at their own pace, because the script doesn’t talk down to us; it expects us to keep up.
Lastly, the pacing is brisk and balanced. Exposition-heavy sequences are often bookended within character-driven anecdotes, which means the audience often learns something abstract at a macro level and then sees it paid off at the micro, interpersonal level.
For example, when Molly starts running games in New York, we need to understand what’s different about the players and the stakes in NYC vs. her previous games in LA.
To help establish this, Sorkin introduces the character of Cole (Joe Keery), a trust fund kid whom Molly catches cheating with the help of security cameras. When she busts him, Cole mentions that the other players will flip out if they realize her games are being recorded. Molly navigates this conflict by negotiating with Cole in good faith. This trade-off, like every conflict in the film, underscores the film’s central theme: Molly is a straight arrow who only ever bends toward the dark side in cases of self-preservation when the stakes around her raise to dangerous levels.
And this, in a nutshell, is also where the script for Molly’s Game goes wrong.
The Three Storytelling Problems in Molly’s Game
As I said, the film’s three big problems are interconnected, and they all stem from one core flaw:
The character of Molly is essentially presented as perfect.
I don’t mean that Molly doesn’t make mistakes, or that bad things don’t happen to her. She does, and they do. (Hell, the whole film revolves around whether or not she’s going to end up broke, incarcerated, or both.)
But when bad things do happen to Molly, we’re not as emotionally invested in their resolution as we should be.
Because Molly’s Game presents Molly as a character whose resilience and adaptability are never in doubt.
Here’s why that backfires.
(NOTE: Spoilers ahead for Molly’s Game … and, weirdly, for the 2013 film Gravity.)
The Plot’s Stakes Are Never Clear
What do you need in order to create clear stakes in any story? Three things:
- Establish what the character wants — their goal or desire
- Establish what’s preventing the character from achieving their goal
- Establish what will happen if the character doesn’t achieve their goal
Unfortunately, Molly’s Game comes up short in all three areas.
The movie opens with a lengthy anecdote that establishes Molly’s indomitable personality. Her father, a domineering perfectionist, raised her to be an Olympic-level skier. She even overcame painful spinal surgery to qualify for the Olympics, but a freak accident during the qualifying trials sends her down a different life path instead.
The lesson? Molly is someone who can literally suffer two life-altering, bone-crushing defeats in her life before she even graduates college and still come out swinging.
In Los Angeles, Molly unintentionally learns how to run poker games from her boss, a well-connected LA hustler who brings together rich celebrities for huge bets. He’s bad at organization and project management, so Molly runs the details of his games, from the money to the atmosphere. When their relationship sours (because her boss is an insecure dick), Molly steals his game and makes it her own… and all the players go with her.
Does anything bad happen to Molly as a result of this? No, because Molly is always better prepared than her opponents.
When she loses her LA game (because her new business partner is also a dick), Molly refuses to let this twist break her spirit. Instead, she moves to New York with the goal of building an even bigger game there.
The lesson? No matter what happens to Molly, she’ll keep going until she gets what she wants.
Her New York game eventually collapses when it turns out some of her players are (whoops!) connected to the Russian mafia, and federal investigators assume Molly has been knowingly laundering money for them through her game. Molly, being a straight arrow, insists she had no idea about any of this. But she’s still indicted, has millions of dollars seized, and faces years in prison.
The final act of the film hinges on whether or not Molly will trade information about her players in exchange for a reduced sentence. But because she’s a straight arrow, Molly refuses to sell her players out. Instead, she pleads guilty, because she’d rather go to jail with a clear conscience.
Guess what happens.
Does Molly Bloom go to jail?
Or does an activist judge have a lengthy monologue about the evils of Wall Street, and give Molly a reduced sentence of community service and a $250,000 fine because Molly hasn’t done anything nearly as bad as the evils of American capitalism?
If you remember that Aaron Sorkin also wrote The West Wing, then congratulations, you correctly guessed B.
So, to summarize: every time Molly Bloom faces what should be dire circumstances, she not only bounces back, but she comes back stronger.
As a result, the audience never really understands what Molly wants, why she wants it, or what’s at stake if Molly loses, because losing doesn’t seem to affect her.
Molly’s Catharsis Is Unearned
This being an Aaron Sorkin script, there’s one other unfortunately recurring story quirk.
As in The Social Network, where Sorkin theorized that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s pathological drive to succeed stems from being rejected by a girl, Molly’s Game theorizes that Molly’s equally pathological drive to succeed stems from feeling rejected by her father. Thus, she keeps attracting unreliable men whom she can control, each of whom ultimately let her down.
This all adds up to a frankly stunning “catharsis by accident,” in which her father literally appears out of nowhere and has a heart-to-heart dialogue with her on a park bench while she’s waiting to find out if the feds will let her go free.
I honestly spent this entire scene wondering if she was having a conversation with a phantom projection of her dad, a la George Clooney’s “surprise return” fakeout in Gravity, but no.
No, the film’s entire emotional catharsis hinges on a happy coincidence.
Molly’s father “just knows you’d be here,” at the skating rink in Rockefeller Center, and then explains her entire psychiatric history and motivation to her, providing her with the closure she never had until now.
Hey, why not?
(And I’m not the only one who IDed this scene as the movie’s Achilles heel.)
Okay, so what changes for Molly as a result of this conversation?
Well… nothing, actually.
And that’s because…
There’s No Character Arc
Molly Bloom is the same character at the beginning of this film as she is at the end.
Sure, she’s more famous (or infamous, depending on your POV).
Sure, she knows more about poker, money, the mafia, and the CIA.
And sure, her father finally stops treating her like a dick.
But if Molly herself learned anything from all this, it’s that she just needs to keep doing exactly what she’s being doing this whole time. (Except maybe in a more reputable industry.)
A story about a character who doesn’t have to change in order to win can be interesting.
It can even be satisfying.
But what it rarely becomes is a must-see story.
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