Review: Ante Up And Play ‘Molly’s Game’

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Molly's Game, Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut starring Jessica Chastain as Molly Boom.

Acclaimed writer Aaron Sorkin has enjoyed a successful run as a screenwriter. Now Sorkin takes his words into his own hands with Molly’s Game, his directorial debut, based on a memoir by Molly Bloom. One can see why his interest was piqued with a story like this. It places a strong female character at the front of a newsworthy story involving the participation of celebrities, successful businessmen, and mobsters in an underground poker club. Thanks to a cross-cutting narrative approach, the film relies heavily on Sorkin’s ability to let the actors and especially the dialogue build a fantastic flow for the film and the results are quite exciting.

Jessica Chastain stars as Molly Bloom an Olympic-class skier-turned FBI target, following a decade spent cultivating and working with a high-class clientele for the sake of an exclusive high-stakes poker game. The film jumps back and forth in time, so the basics for understanding use a modern-day narrative as a throughline. This involves Molly’s work with a lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), to hopefully clear her name, as her involvement in orchestrating a poker game and going on to write a book about it has led to an indictment with possibly severe consequences.

The best way to take in a film like this is to accept the type of world that Sorkin’s characters live in. Much like his scripts for The Social Network and Steve Jobs, Molly’s Game takes place in a skewed reality where everyone functions at a fast-pace, has a level of intelligence allowing them to keep up with all the other fast-talkers and conveniently have the need to have big speeches or conversations at pivotal moments in their lives that span several minutes of a day. While adapted from a memoir that’s based on actual events, Sorkin finds the joy in compacting huge amounts of time into several key scenes.

That decision provides the film a sense of energy, which is very much needed for a movie that is not even about the thrill of playing poker but watching someone watch others play poker. Of course, that only takes up a portion of the middle of the film. The focus is on Molly, all the way through, which means learning about who she is, where she came from, and what is driving her. That last point may be hit on the least, as the film goes overboard by just spelling it out in a poorly staged scene towards the end involving Kevin Costner as Molly’s father. However, it matters little thanks to a compelling performance by Chastain.

While it was commendable to see a movie like Miss Sloane arrive last year, that felt like a warm-up for Chastain with this film. Molly’s Game’s script is sharper, the stakes feel higher, and the whole appeal doesn’t feel undone by certain ludicrous actions that don’t hold up when thinking about them later on. Molly’s Game may have a level of convenience, but it stems from Sorkin’s choice to make the film more impactful by stacking important moments next to each other, rather than draw them out. Through all this, Chastain shines in her ability to go toe to toe with some wealthy male characters, taking them to task based on her wits. And what an interesting cast there is here.

Chris O’Dowd, Jeremy Strong, Bill Camp, Brian d’Arcy James, and Stranger Things’ Joe Keery all factor in as different types of players with memorable scenes. Camp, in particular, has an excruciating few scenes to watch, as he gets into deep water based on a surprising action by a very dim character. Michael Cera has a notable role as well, portraying Player X, a major celebrity poker player (heavily rumored to be Tobey Maguire) who revels in destroying his opponents. All these performances led to some great scenes showing the different displays of power Molly finds herself utilizing.

As mentioned, Elba is on hand as well and he does a fantastic job in this key supporting turn. The interplay between him and Chastain is spot on, but leave it to Sorkin to assemble a fantastic third act monologue that lays all the cards on the table and have Elba be right there to pick it all up brilliantly. Between these big moments and the subtle beats that rely on reaction and delivery, there is so much great work on display here to keep Molly’s Game as fun as a buddy comedy at times and deadly serious at others.

If anything is holding this film back, it’s the sort of cinematic grace that comes from directors like David Fincher, Danny Boyle or Bennett Miller, but feels lacking here. It’s not as though Molly’s Game came across like the work of madman Stephen King when he directed Maximum Overdrive, but the production can merely be stated as competently filmed. Perhaps it comes down to the focus and how to juggle so many plot threads, but the film’s depth only goes so far when considering how far this movie could go in exploring Molly’s place in a male-dominated society. Given Sorkin’s desire to construct a film based on this character, some inherent opportunities are presented, but even from a visual standpoint, only so many chances are taken to explore it.

That’s ultimately a mild issue, however, as Molly’s Game left me feeling incredibly satisfied. Thanks to what I consider some of the best, wittiest dialogue exchanges of the year (and this film has some good competition), there is a lot to have fun within a movie that holds the balance of someone’s name (and by extension, their life) on the line. It’s well-acted and does manage to take on a lot for a lengthy film that doesn’t feel overwhelming. The film fits right into Sorkin’s wheelhouse and seeing him go for it by handling the direction at least shows how he’s not afraid to get dirty.

8
Great
Written by
Aaron is a movie fanatic and loves talking about such things…a lot. He is from Orange County, California, but earned a degree or two at UC Santa Barbara. He describes himself as a film reviewer, writer, podcaster, video game player, comic book reader, disc golfer, and a lefty. His mind is full of film knowledge and random trivia, but he is always open to learning more, whether it’s through box office stats, reviewing Blu-rays from The Criterion Collection or simply hearing first hand from filmmakers and others about various productions and behind-the-scenes tidbits.

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