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Molly's Game

At the Cinemark

(R)

Grade: A-

Don’t be fooled at the table: “Molly’s Game” is not about gambling, even though lots of rich, high-rollers lose millions in poker games with “nosebleed” stakes along the way.

“Molly’s Game” is entirely about Molly Bloom, a very bright, very driven 3.9 college graduate who makes a mistake common among people blessed/cursed with very high-IQs.

Molly outsmarts herself.

She’s smart enough to learn how to run a high-stakes poker game and make a bundle of money. But she’s not smart enough to follow the wisdom of Kenny Rogers: She doesn’t know when to walk away, and she certainly doesn’t know when to run.

In short, Molly expects that being intelligent will protect her from moral consequence. If she can figure out how to shave points using Occam’s Razor, she figures she’ll be able to untangle legal and ethical thickets as well.

No, Molly, smart people don’t get to Heaven quicker. In fact, like rich people, bright folk face extra obstacles because of their Houdini complex that assures them there’s no lock they can’t pick. No so, Harry, not so.

Thanks to a layered script by Aaron Sorkin and a sizzling interior performance by Jessica Chastain, “Molly’s Game” evolves from an oft-told story about the perils of gambling to a seldom-told tale of the moral evolution of a gifted young woman.

For the record, Molly Bloom was a real person and the film is reportedly pretty faithful to her life.

Born in 1978, Molly was the daughter of helicopter parents who drove their offspring to success, with or without their permission. Molly’s brother was an Olympic skier and professional football player for the Eagles. Molly was a top-ranked competitive skier favored to qualify for the Olympics in 2002, until she fell in the trials.

Molly should have given up skiing earlier. An accident when she was a pre-teen required back surgery, but her dad, a professor of psychology at Colorado State, insisted she tough it out. Whenever Molly said she was “tired,” her dad reminded her that “tired” was just a euphemism for “weak” – and back to the slopes she went for another run.

Molly’s mind maneuvered through concepts as well as her legs scissored through the slaloms.

Molly graduated college summa cum laude and earned a 173 on the LSAT, above the 99th percentile. She was accepted to Harvard Law School.

But Molly, burned out and bummed out, took time off before law school, against the advice of her impatient parents who wanted her to conquer the world – and now!

During this break, she did some skiing – eyes on 2006 Olympics – but mostly decelerated. She wasn’t picky about jobs – a cocktail waitress with a skimpy outfit or an office manager for a sleazy entrepreneur, for example.

That office job led to opportunity and to trouble.

Her shady boss was running an illegal poker game, and asked Molly to help out on game nights. She collected the money and kept track of what was lent and what was collected. Mostly, she watched rich men win and lose frightening amounts of money in a single hand.

Molly was smart enough to figure out everything she needed to know to run her own game – and so she did. She started in L.A. and then moved upscale to New York. Sometimes, she was an apprentice to professionals who showed her the ropes.

But Molly was too ambitious to work for others for long. Eventually, after she was fired for being too ambitious, she upped the ante and ran one of the world’s most expensive poker games in the world – a place where players might lose 100K in a hand, and only shrug.

At first, Molly’s games were “legit,” skating inside the law because Molly didn’t take “rakes,” the “commission” taken by a game organizer. When the organizer makes a profit, then they may be running an illegal game.

For a long while, Molly resists the urge to take the rake. Eventually, addicted to drugs and living above her means, she succumbs. She invites in shady players, too – as long as their pockets are deep, deal them in.

Eventually, her house of cards collapses. A Mafia thug beats her up and robs her.

“Molly’s Game” begins with an FBI raid on Molly’s house in the middle of the night. She’s arrested for running an illegal game – one involving players from the underworld.

Molly hires a top attorney (magnificently played by Idris Elba) who reluctantly agrees to take her case. While they search for ways to keep her out of jail, Molly tells her lawyer – and us – how she got into this mess.

A powerful subplot involves Molly’s complex relation to her dad, who drove her to success – while cheating on Molly’s mom. Molly could never forgive her dad for that.

The script is complex enough to weave all these threads into a truly fascinating portrait of a brilliant lady who isn’t smart enough to find inner peace. Turns out that takes more than brains.

There’s a powerful scene when dad and daughter finally have the come-to-Jesus talk they needed in order to begin to reconcile. Both are honest, setting the stage for starting over. Kevin Costner plays the dad with the conviction of someone with experience: He’s raised three daughters: Grace, Lily and Annie.

Eventually, Molly is forced to make a high-stakes moral decision, involving no chips. She chooses the high road and, for the first time in her life, puts her integrity first and her brain second. That’s the lesson she never learned as a child who was taught to “play through pain” and never be “weak.”

Finally, Molly has learned what it means to be strong.

I hope the many ultra-smart kids I’ve taught learn this same lesson before it’s too late. They need to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em – and they need to learn that their mighty brains won’t always provide the answer.

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