Note: Spoilers ahead for Molly’s Game.
Aaron Sorkin’s first directing effort, Molly’s Game, is a lot of fun, and, if not for one complete misstep, perhaps an incredibly timely feature. The film follows Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a world-class skier who, following a horrific accident, eventually ended up running one of the most successful underground poker games before everything crashed down on her. The movie features the crackling dialogue Sorkin is known for, and thanks to great performances from Chastain, co-stars Idris Elba and Michael Cera, and some skillful editing to piece the story together, it’s largely a success. Except for one scene.
I’ve seen Molly’s Game twice now and both times the scene not only grinds the movie to a halt, but also damages everything that came before. The scene comes when Molly, overwhelmed from dealing with federal prosecutors all day, goes to a skating rink to blow off steam. There, she runs into her estranged father, Larry (Kevin Costner), who also happens to be a psychologist. He proceeds to sit Molly down and “give her the answers” by condensing 15 years of therapy into 15 minutes. It’s terrible.
The first problem is that Molly’s father shows up at all. His appearance at the skating rink is so random that at first we think she’s imagining his presence. But no, he’s really there and there’s a throwaway line about how Molly told her mother where she was going and her mother told her father. So you already have a character clumsily showing up in a place he probably shouldn’t be, especially when it looked like Molly’s decision to go skating had been made in the spur of the moment.
Secondly, the scene already follows a major scene where Molly’s attorney, Charlie Jaffey (Elba), has a long monologue singing all of Molly’s virtues. It’s weird for one character to have to explain why another character is great, but the scene works because not only is Elba fantastic at delivering Sorkin’s dialogue, but also because it’s a turning point in their relationship. Charlie, who initially thought Molly was nothing more than a “poker princess”, admits that she’s incredibly noble. It’s telling the audience that if you’re not on Molly’s side yet, you’re out of your mind, and that just because she made mistakes, she’s not a villain.
So it’s weird to then follow that up with another male character, one who is estranged from Molly, to come back into her life and tell her who she is. We know Molly by this point, and having a psychologist pop up on screen to explain another character’s baggage is the cardinal sin of “telling, not showing” in screenwriting. It’s one thing to have Molly explain how Poker works because some audience members need that, and it’s efficient. But Molly is our protagonist, Chastain is a gifted actress, and we’re about two hours into the movie. We don’t need her dad explaining what motivates Molly.
But the third, and most damning problem with the scene, is that in a movie about toxic masculinity, Molly can only seem to have an epiphany if her toxic father teaches her an important lesson. The toxic masculinity present in Molly’s Game is persistent and intentional. There are women who love poker, but we never see female players. It’s for men only, and we see how men like Molly’s boss Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), Player X (Cera), Douglas Downey (Chris O’Dowd), Bad Brad (Brian d’Arcy James), Harlan Eustice (Bill Camp) and more share awful behaviors. It’s not that poker creates these men or that all men are bad, but they’re recurring presence can’t be ignored. Molly tried to create a successful business on the backs of these men, but every time these men found a way to betray her.
In her quickie therapy session, Molly admits that she knew her father cheated on her mother, and in that way, Molly’s father was the first man who truly betrayed her. So is that character really the best person to lead Molly to her revelation? And if so, his conclusion is that all of Molly’s actions are just a way to get back at her dad? Daddy issues may be a part of Molly’s psychological issues, but Sorkin goes about revealing that in the worst way possible. Instead of shining a light on toxic masculinity, Sorkin merely trades one bad male behavior for another, patronization.
I understand that Molly needs to make this connection in order to complete her character arc and for the audience to understand why a woman with a “gold-plated resume decides to run the world’s most exclusive mancave.” But to simply have a character randomly show up to explain that motivation, and have the explainer be the last person who should impart that information, cripples the movie. It doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to enjoy the rest of Molly’s Game, but it does show how one truly awful scene can hurt the rest of the picture.