Screenwriting legend Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The Social Network) makes his directorial debut with the flashy and highly entertaining Molly’s Game. The film is adapted from the best-selling, fascinating true story of Hollywood “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom. Jessica Chastain stars as Molly, a fierce competitor who used her intellect and nerve to rise to the top of the underground, high stakes poker scene. The film has a Goodfellas feel to it with lots of slick editing, upbeat music, and onscreen visuals. Molly’s Game becomes too enamored with its subject, but is a helluva wild ride at the theater this Christmas.
Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) was an Olympics bound downhill skier. A teen champion, she was driven relentlessly to perfection by her domineering father (Kevin Costner). This constant pressure taught her to thrive and be adaptable under imposing circumstances. A freak accident left her severely injured. With her career and life’s work in ruins, she set out to rediscover herself in Los Angeles. A chance job as an administrative assistant/waitress leads her into Hollywood’s secret poker clubs. A quick study, Molly realizes she could do a far better job hosting high rollers. She embarks on risky endeavor to lure the big fish into her private game. The gambit works, but it isn’t long before Molly pops on the authorities’ radar.
You might not remember Molly Bloom’s name, but her downfall was tabloid gold ten years ago. Hollywood’s A-list players, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the top card shark, Tobey Maguire were all part of her game. The film does not reveal the stars, but refers to them by codenames. Maguire was the infamous “Player X”, a ruthless manipulator, played with a dark personality by Michael Cera. Ironically, these movie stars weren’t nearly as wealthy or powerful compared to the billionaires and gangsters that graced Molly’s private games. Sorkin’s inside peek into the greedy heart of rich douchebags is enthralling to see. Molly was the best of enablers, a cunning businesswoman who knew how to set the mood for avarice.
Sorkin’s writing is apple crisp. There’s a lot of voice over work by Jessica Chastain as she narrates the story. Usually this is a sign of a weak script, but not the case here. Sorkin doesn’t want to bore you by having the characters explain poker and betting strategy. It’s a wise move having her set-up every scene, so the audience not only understands the game but the context in which it’s being played. Sorkin’s quick edits and barrage of visual effects help this narration along. These scenes are frenetic, like watching a slot machine roll. They work most of the time, but tend to be glaringly different from the more dramatic elements of the film. Molly’s relationship with her father, the emotional core of the story, gets lost in the flash and sizzle.
Molly’s Game has Jessica Chastain front and center in almost every scene. She’s an absolute delight as always. Molly, who spent her teens as a competitive athlete, had to learn to be pretty and exploit her looks. The best character development in the story is Molly understanding what these moneyed men wanted from her. She was never going to sleep with any of them, be their trophy, or conquest. But she had to be supremely desirable, the fictional dream woman, beautiful, sexy, and unattainable. This careful manipulation of her image led Molly’s clients to respect, and more importantly, view her as a confidant. Chastain dominates this movie with stardom. She’ll be in the mix, again, for every lead actress award.
Aaron Sorkin does a very good job in his first outing as director, but makes a few mistakes. His first is the rollercoaster feel of the story. The gambling is shown with vigor and purpose, while her downfall is treated far less dramatically. Sorkin goes stylistically wild when the cards hit the table, but glosses over her personal issues. Idris Elba costars as her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey. Their interaction is compelling, but I never really bought into how Molly’s legal problems were handled. It feels like there’s a bridge missing between her private and gambling life.
From STX Films, Molly’s Game is a brisk distraction from the Christmas noise. It’s a tale of tenacity and intelligence in the testosterone fueled world of high stakes poker. Jessica Chastain dazzles as Molly Bloom. Sorkin was infinitely wise to cast her as his lead. He delivers a highly enjoyable film in his first outing as director.