David Levien, Brian Koppelman, and John Dahl, 1998

A Skandie acting award went to Edward Norton for this movie, but I want to talk about Gretchen Mol instead.

First, a story. I've told it before, so I'll just recap what I wrote the first time:

1992. Shakespeare class. We were reading Antony and Cleopatra. The professor, Stephen Booth, was a big proponent of the worst kind of reader response criticism — he'd read Stanley Fish in 1967 but apparently stopped reading him before 1976, when Fish realized that it was stupid to talk about the experiences of "the reader" when actual readers experience texts in very different ways. Booth was all about how "the reader" reacted to the play — i.e., identifying with Antony — and how Shakespeare engineered this reaction. I pointed out that, empirically, this didn't always work, because I read the play and found myself backing Caesar. Booth's reply: "No you didn't. Caesar's the kind of guy you want running your Kansas City plant." The idea that someone might prefer a sober boy genius to a drunken sot who thought with his dick was inconceivable to him.

Here are a few of the things I have read people write about Gretchen Mol's character, Jo, in this movie:

  • "insufferable whiny girlfriend"
  • "so heinously unlikable"
  • "wet blanket girlfriend from hell"
  • "squinty-eyed, non-supportive, whiny you-know-what"
  • "If you were making a Mount Rushmore for Wet Blanket Girlfriends in sports movies, there's no question that Mike McD's girlfriend would be up there"
  • "you guys should have had her get run over by a cab"

Naturally, I found her the most likeable character in the movie.

Let's look at what makes Jo so impossible to bear. The movie begins with the main character, Mike, grabbing the stashes of money he has hidden from her around the apartment they share. He then gambles it away in an illegal back-room poker game against mobsters. Nine months pass. He's no longer gambling, because he's "made promises." Oh, no, she made him stop gambling? Just because they were making plans to have a life together and he lost $30,000 of their combined net worth in a card game? What a bitch!

We meet Jo for the first time. Mike tells her that he thinks he may have landed a clerkship by impressing a judge with his poker prowess. Here the filmmakers strain themselves trying to turn us against Jo, putting her in full wet-blanket mode. She expresses concern that a clerkship won through card-sharking skills rather than legal acumen might be dubious. What a bitch! Though, of course, she has a point. She also frets that, even though he didn't actually play in the game in question, the fact that he got involved suggests that he might be backsliding. What a bitch! Though, of course, she's absolutely right and his backsliding will constitute the rest of the movie. Oh yeah, and as a finishing touch she turns up her nose at the mention of Mike's buddy Worm. What a bitch! Though, of course, Worm is a cretin who will nearly get Mike killed later on.

Mike picks Worm up from prison and they go play poker. Mike gets home very late. Jo asks him whether he's been playing cards. He tells her no. She finds the wad of money he's just won and confronts him with it. What a bitch! Though, of course, Mike just lied to her face. They head over to the law school, where they're preparing for an important Moot Court session, when one of Mike's seedy poker buddies shows up and interrupts their meeting. Jo doesn't like it. What a bitch! Though, of course, Mike's return to gambling is now threatening both her home life and her education.

Mike and Jo have their big confrontation. Jo points out that Mike's claims that he "can't lose" are patently false, because he's lost everything they had once; that she stood by him despite his colossal fuckup; that now he's not only back to compulsive gambling but lying to her about it. Mike replies that he's lying because she wouldn't understand. Understand what? That, playing cards, he "felt alive for the first time" since the bad beat at the mobsters' place.

Bullet-point people, what is wrong with you that you're identifying with the gigantic dick in this scenario?

Actually, I think I can answer that. The basic selling point of this movie is that it's about poker. It therefore stands to reason that it will attract an audience that likes poker and will therefore take the side of the poker player against that of the girlfriend who disapproves of poker. Well, I also disapprove of poker, for reasons I touched on in my Election article. The purpose of money should be to allot greater purchasing power to those who contribute more to society. A dollar bill is a ticket indicating that the bearer has provided a dollar's worth of goods or services to the commonweal and is therefore entitled to take that much back out. Redistributing those tickets through betting distorts that allocation of purchasing power. Goods and services get diverted to people who contributed none of their own. That's bad. But not too many people in Rounders's target audience are going to agree with me and the smart, pretty, loyal blonde girl on this point. The film is directed at those who, like Mike, prefer the allure of the "monster hand." (And they're gonna need it.)

One more observation. Rounders draws an invidious distinction between the piranhas and the fish, and of course who wants to identify with the sweating, overweight, elderly fish in their bad makeup and ugly Hawaiian shirts? This is a movie in which you're either a really good poker player or you're a clown. But take any other specialty, and the poker aficionados become the clowns. As he claims yet another pot at the World Series of Poker, Mike might be thinking, "This guy just bought himself a seat after playing a few hands on the Internet. He knows nothing about cards. What a loser!" But his opponent might be thinking right back, "This guy knows nothing about the Internet. He actually thinks $10,000 is a lot of money. I made 10,000 times that in my IPO. What a loser!" The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt thinks Mike is a loser because he can kick Mike's ass. The Korean go master thinks Mike is a loser because Mike isn't even 18 gup. The lawyer thinks Mike is a loser because he was there that day a few years back when Mike made a fool of himself citing Texas v. Johnson in a Moot Court argument and got shot down by multiple judges. They're all right by their own lights. They just have to hope to wind up in a movie that agrees with their criteria.

A Civil Action
Jonathan Harr and Stephen Zaillian, 1998

Oily lawyer grows a soul, loses case to crusty lawyer who doesn't. This is a movie that just screams "based on a book"; actually, it screams even more loudly "based on a New Yorker article." And, uh, that's really all I have to say about this one.

Which just leaves one more movie in the queue for the '98 Skandies...

Return to the Calendar page!