Molly’s Game (2017)
Deal with her.
Aaron Sorkin is probably one of the most notable and respected screenwriters working in the industry today. Having penned popular movies and television shows such as The Social Network (2010), A Few Good Men (1992), and The West Wing (1999-06), Sorkin has become renowned for his intelligent, razor-sharp, mile-a-minute dialogue, which has been dubbed ‘Sorkinese,’ the 56-year-old best known for writing tortured male geniuses, including Apple creator Steve Jobs and the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. Despite his esteemed status, Sorkin has been (rightfully) criticized for his weak women characters, along with his comments in Sony’s leaked emails from 2014, where he stated that female actors weren’t as good as their male counterparts.
Debunking the criticisms, Sorkin plays his cards right with his directorial debut Molly’s Game, which tells the real-life story of hard-edged mastermind Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), the sizzling hostess behind a glamorous underground poker ring that attracted rich, powerful and famous men for almost a decade — from Hollywood A-listers to athletes and business tycoons (even the Russian mob) — her high-stakes gambling kingdom eventually getting her in trouble with the FBI.
Inspired by Bloom’s 2014 exposé memoir, which shares the same name as the film, Molly’s Game jumps back and fourth through time, between her efforts to persuade (fictitious) New York criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her in court — after being arrested late one night by the Feds on charges of racketeering — to the intervening years, where viewers learn just how this smouldering redhead built herself up to become a clandestine gambling goddess. We’re also given glimpses into Molly’s youth as an eager Olympics-bound skier, who was trained and pushed by her aggressively overbearing therapist dad, Larry (a very solid Kevin Costner).
Molly’s Game opens by introducing us to our protagonist and quick-witted narrator, Molly, via voice-over, as she explains that she was forced to ditch skiing after a freak accident at a 2002 Winter Olympics qualifier left her with a devastating back injury. In order to distance herself from her tough-love father and her two overachieving brothers, Molly heads to Los Angeles (instead of going to law school like she’d originally planned), where she meets a sleazy real estate agent named Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) while working as a cocktail waitress. From there, Molly lands a job as his preppy assistant, organizing his affairs as well as a weekly underground poker game in the basement of the fictional ‘Cobra Lounge’ (a thinly veiled stand-in for Sunset Strip’s notorious Viper Room), the game (with its $10,000 buy-in) attracting many of Hollywood’s elite — Molly changing their names to obscure their identities.
If you’re not into poker, don’t fret as Sorkin basically teaches viewers the game as Molly learns it — the rules, the lingo and even the tricks — our wickedly smart heroine making piles of money (in tips) and connections along the way. After irking her douchebag of a boss, who tries to cut her out of the business, Molly takes his list of high-profile names and launches her own rival poker game in a private penthouse suite, poaching his players and raising the stakes.
During this time we meet the regulars, many who fall madly in love with the unattainable lady of the house, whose sexy outfits by costume designer Susan Lyall, Music and Lyrics (2007), expose oodles of cleavage. Firstly, there’s a prominent movie star who’s given the pseudonym ‘Player X,’ the aforementioned said to have been the guy who persuaded the others into making the switch to Molly’s hotel room. Michael Cera, Superbad (2007), who plays against type, portrays the celebrity in question, Cera’s hot-shot Hold ‘Em shark more interested in destroying lives rather than actually winning, Player X believed to be an amalgamation of Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck. Brian d’Arcy James, Spotlight (2015), is great as ‘Bad Brad,’ a hedge-fund manager with an appalling lack of skill (when it comes to cards), who continues to play in order to make friends with the other big shots, while Bill Camp, Loving (2016), is terrific as a conservative grinder named Harlan Eustice, Camp encapsulating the devastating reality of going ‘on tilt’ after one huge hand goes south.
When Molly finds out that Player X has been funding Harlan to ruin his life, she scolds him for his unethical actions, Player X retaliating by stealing the game from Molly and shifting it to another location, cutting her out entirely. Having gotten used to the razzle-dazzle of the high life, Molly moves to New York to defy Player X, where she assembles an even bigger game with a $25,000 buy-in, luring male players by hiring gorgeous females as dealers and waitresses, Molly (who always looks a zillion bucks) attracting enough wealthy New Yorkers for a couple of games a week. Opening her doors to rich Russian Jews, narky mobsters and a scene-stealing Chris O’Dowd, Bridesmaids (2011), Molly struggles to keep up with the demand of her mounting empire and the dangers that come with it, turning to drugs for that extra oomph whilst taking a percentage of her large pots to cover any potential losses. Unfortunately, the Feds catch wind of Molly’s ‘game’ and eventually arrest her, the U.S. government hoping to exploit the über-connected woman to uncover the identities of some of her regulars.
Using the court case as a framing device, Molly’s Game coasts by thanks to the superb work of Jessica Chastain — who has proven, time and time again, that she has what it takes to command the screen — and her co-star Idris Elba, Pacific Rim (2013), who manages to keep up with Chastain’s killer delivery and match her lightning-fast wit, the pair illuminating the screen with their characters’ fun power-play dynamic, both openly used to being at the top of their class/ the smartest person in the room.
Chastain’s Molly, who’s clearly the Ace in Sorkin’s hand, feels like an apology for the way he’s portrayed women in the past, Bloom depicted as a fierce, resilient lady who one-ups some of America’s most powerful men, yet remains squeaky clean throughout, never dabbling in anything shady like prostitution, Molly constantly refusing to give up the names of those who gambled in her establishments (as it could shatter lives and families), the American entrepreneur rendered as a fighter who just wanted to earn her father’s approval. While some of this might feel a little distorted, our leading lady does all that she can to ensure Molly’s journey is one worth taking, Chastain playing the ‘Poker Princess’ in the same way she did Elizabeth Sloane, the formidable, take-no-prisoners lobbyist from last year’s excellent Miss Sloane (2016), the fiery 40-year-old winning me over almost right away.
The same can be said about Idris Elba, the hunky Brit breathing life into Molly’s straight-arrow lawyer Jaffey, who’s initially hesitant to take on Molly’s case for a myriad of reasons — quite frankly, he doesn’t really believer her story, plus, with Molly’s assets frozen, she’s pretty upfront about not being able to pay him for his services. In the end, it’s Charlie’s model-student teenage daughter who changes her father’s opinion after she reads Molly’s book, then starts to view her as something of a feminist hero, Jaffey’s resulting ‘drop the changes’ spiel prompting audiences to do the same, Elba shouting that if we aren’t on Molly’s side by now, we’re (probably) out of our minds. Making a kinda comeback, Kevin Costner, Hidden Figures (2016), is also very good as Molly’s stern psychologist dad Larry, despite being given a contrived sequence in the third act that sees him reconcile with his daughter, checking her pulse before giving her a lifetime’s worth of therapy all in one session.
While we all know that Aaron Sorkin can write, Molly’s Game proves that he can direct as well, Sorkin channeling the likes of Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) and even The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) with his stimulating visuals, frenzied editing and bold, lively camerawork. Clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, Molly’s Game is fast, snappy and fabulous, the whole shebang elevated by an irresistible cast. Sure, I can nitpick, but I’d rather just go all-in instead!
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie