Film Review: Molly's Game

Riveting. Breathless. Intellectually exhilarating.
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The real Molly Bloom first attracted attention as a Colorado-born skier who seemed on her way to become a world champion—as her brother Jeremy eventually did. But during her Olympic trials, Molly was literally tripped up by skiing over a twig—an accident that sent her flying and resulted in the severe back injury that effectively ended her skiing career. But that wasn’t the end of Molly.

She was next in the news on her arrest by the FBI on charges related to the years she hosted high-stakes poker games for a bunch of rich and famous risk-takers—all men—from the bicoastal money pits of Hollywood and Wall Street. Unbeknownst to Molly, some of her “regulars” were involved in organized crime—the Russian as well as the domestic variety—who eventually came under surveillance by the FBI. Allegedly, Molly herself never did anything illegal (well, not too illegal), which is why she is today a free woman who, a few years ago, decided to cash in on her glamour years by writing a memoir about being a kind-of dominatrix to a group of needy, poker-obsessed billionaires. It’s easy to see why Aaron Sorkin would be fascinated by Molly’s story, for it’s chock-a-block full of his favorite subjects: power, money, glamour and the fast-paced, morally dicey culture that has lately seemed to entangle so many “elites.” So, yeah, this movie is definitely an Aaron Sorkin creation.

But Molly’s Game also belongs—gloriously so—to the brilliant actress Jessica Chastain. For those who may have a hard time believing there really is a Molly Bloom—a young woman possessed of the brains, beauty and unbelievable balls to do what she did—Chastain will convince you that Molly really does think and talk in those clipped, Sorkin-style sentences (much of it in voiceover narration), or that she’s such a fast learner she need only watch a few poker hands to understand the nuances of the game better than the guys who spend a good chunk of their lives bluffing their way through Texas Hold-em. Chastain also convinces us that Molly is so self-possessed she doesn’t even whimper when a mobster “roughs her up.”

In Molly’s telling, her entry into the poker business was almost accidental. Needing money before going to law school, she began working part-time for a guy running a weekly game in L.A. Her base salary was barely more than minimum wage, but the players, who had to put up $10,000 just to get in the game, were big tippers. Molly does so well, in fact, she forgets about law school and when her boss tries to demote her, she decides to go it alone and eventually moves to New York, setting up business at the Plaza Hotel. She’s so successful the frequency of her games increases to one a day, making it necessary to hire some classy-looking female assistants who attract to the games even more moneyed A-listers, including a few well-known movie stars. Michael Cera, for example, plays a rather sinister character allegedly based on Tobey Maguire.

We come to know very little about Molly’s private life. It does appear that several regulars fall in love with her, notably a hapless fellow played by Chris O’Dowd (whom she lets down easy), but most of them are there just for the excitement of the game. Take “Bad Brad,” (Brian D’Arcy James), who’s totally clueless when it comes to the art of bluffing, but nevertheless continues to rake it in. Then there’s a guy named Harlan (Bill Camp), a master bluffer who, distracted, makes one fatal mistake—and sinks deeper and deeper into debt.

Throughout her involvement in the gambling lifestyle, with its tsunamis of cash flowing through her hands, Molly Bloom would have us believe that she generally remained above temptation. Okay, there was that one time she took a small “rake,” but that’s not what caught the attention of the Feds. They brought Molly in on suspicion of colluding with the Mafia—specifically its Russian members. The charge is serious enough to require a lawyer and Molly wants only the best, most straight-arrow one she can find. Enter Charlie Jaffey, in the person of Idris Elba, who proves here that he is also a master of Sorkin’s fast-talking style. The scenes between Chastain and Elba must give Sorkin goose bumps, so effortlessly do they toss off his word-perfect zingers. And yet, and yet—there appear to be no sexual sparks between Elba’s character and Molly. Heavens no. These two must remain squeaky clean.

Molly’s Game is an undeniably compelling movie while all the verbal fireworks are going off, but when the script and direction allow the occasional nano-second pause—well, the caveats and questions begin to intrude. For instance: What’s all this stuff about Molly’s daddy issues? As played by Kevin Costner, Molly’s father makes several odd appearances in the film, and in each he comes across as a one-dimensional, didactic dictator. Toward the end of Molly’s Game, his attempt to make his daughter see why she’s so motivated comes across as too little, too late and way too unbelievable.

But perhaps Sorkin did not intend for Molly’s Game to be taken so seriously. Perhaps his movie isn’t meant to be a timely morality tale—at least not for the female half of the population, for there’s no way most women could look upon Molly Bloom as a role model. Perhaps Sorkin’s movie is simply a wink-wink, nudge-nudge entertainment for the kind of guys who went to Molly’s games, for it showcases their favorite kind of fantasy woman—classy, smart, sexy and shapely—and all too willing to cater to their needs.

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