This piece was originally posted on September 12, 2017.
“You’re a role model,” the impossibly handsome Idris Elba tells Jessica Chastain’s character, Molly Bloom. In Molly’s Game, Elba plays a criminally handsome lawyer Ms. Bloom enlists to defend her in criminal court. In real life, Bloom is known as “the poker princess,” a woman who once ran the highest-stakes poker game in the world, frequented by movie stars, billionaires, and even mobsters. She may not sound like your conventional role model, but by the time the movie is over, you’ll be cheering in your seat.
Based on Bloom’s memoir, Molly’s Game is legendary screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut. Sorkin made a name for himself writing acclaimed movies like The Social Network, where women are treated as window dressing; they are there to provide blowjobs in bathrooms, and little else. Sorkin also created my ultimate feminist hate watch, The Newsroom, an HBO series where the female executives are so abysmal at their jobs that they can’t even work their smartphones.
That’s why it’s so surprising that, when handed the director’s chair, Sorkin created a feminist-friendly thrill ride about a strong female character. Indeed, Bloom isn’t just strong; she gets to be the smartest person in the room, no matter how many powerful men are present.
The most frustrating aspect of Sorkin’s casual sexism has always been that he is undeniably a good writer. He’s a master of pacing and creates dialogue so snappy you’ll quote it for days (e.g., “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.”). From the beginning, Sorkin was a smart screenwriter, capable of tackling the stories of great men of different generations, from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg; he just didn’t seem equally concerned with creating worthwhile female characters. But Molly’s Game is proof that apparently people can change.
I do not wish to exalt Sorkin for finally growing up and realizing women make worthwhile characters. That revelation was long overdue. Having said that, I’m relieved he was able to do justice to Molly Bloom’s remarkable story. Hers is an entertaining, thought-provoking tale that deserved to be told.
A champion skier who grew up in Colorado, Bloom lost her athletic career in her early twenties after a freak accident. Exhausted from a life dominated by high performance athletics and academics, she moves to LA after graduating top of her undergraduate class. She says, with her signature dry wit, “I wanted to try being young somewhere warm.”
While in LA, Bloom flukes into running a high-stakes card game for her boss one night and realizes she has a knack for it. She studies poker and applies her wits to taking down the powerful men who oppose her. Before long, Bloom is running a multi-million-dollar enterprise. The film takes pains to demonstrate the time and energy Bloom devotes to building her business, which is a far more interesting story than, say, giving Bloom a love interest.
Like anyone who’s created a wildly successful enterprise from the ground up, Bloom is impressive, but she’s not a saint. In an effort to work longer hours, she becomes addicted to cocaine, and she accidentally allows Russian mobsters into her game. She’s allowed to be a flawed female character and faces her fair share of struggles, just like the powerful men we are used to seeing on screen. What makes Bloom so inspirational, however, is that despite such obstacles, she survives.
Bloom has her own moral code, which she never abandons. Even when indicted, she refuses to name her clients to the authorities. She is an intrepid persona, committed to maintaining her ethics, no matter what the personal cost. When men tell her to settle with the court for her own good, Bloom keeps on swinging.
Admittedly, the idea of a “poker princess” who runs a mostly-legal gambling ring being a role model is an unorthodox one. We are used to watching flawed men with more insidious criminal connections than Bloom become billionaires – or even presidents. By contrast, the women we look up to are supposed to be unblemished. But Molly’s Game is a film that defies this double standard.
Thanks to Chastain’s supernatural realism, and Sorkin’s skillful storytelling, Molly’s Game is changing the game. It presents a case for why a woman shouldn’t have to be an angelic character in order to be admired and exalts Bloom for her strength of character.
Molly’s Game releases in theatres January 5th, 2018.