Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Jeremy Strong, Graham Greene, J C Mackenzie, Brian d’arcy Jones, Natalie Krill, Jon Bass.
Poker is not the most exciting of cinematic sports, although there have been a few great films set against the backdrop of poker, including Rounders, A Big Hand For A Little Lady, etc. And now we get Molly’s Game.
The film is based on the memoir of Molly Bloom (played here by Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic skier who suffered a severe injury and was forced to quit the sport she loved. With few options open she moved to Los Angeles, where she soon found herself working as a personal assistant for the sleazy Dean (Jeremy Strong), a dodgy fixer who arranged high stakes poker games for Hollywood stars, A-list celebrities, millionaire businessmen and sports stars. She organised everything for Dean, and then a series of circumstances lead to her running her own high stakes poker games. She ran the “world’s most exclusive mancave”.
But when her games attracted the attention of Russian mobsters, Molly found herself the target of an FBI probe. In 2014 she was arrested by the FBI on charges of fraud and racketeering. She hired a defence lawyer in Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who was at first reluctant to take on her defence. Jaffey soon learns that there more to Molly than what the tabloids have reported. The story unfolds in a series of extended flashbacks, with lots of articulate voice over narration and exposition, as Jaffey probes her about the events leading up to her arrest. During the negotiations with federal prosecutors Molly refused to name players who had not previously been made public.
Molly was a female in a world of men who exhibited awful, often obsessive behaviour. The film is a study of addictive behaviour, obsession, risky behaviour, toxic masculinity, corruption and power.
Molly’s Game has been written by playwright Aaron Sorkin (Oscar winning writer of The Social Network and the tv series The West Wing, etc), and is based on a series of interviews he conducted in researching the story. He has previously demonstrated a facility for making gripping dramas out somewhat dry subject matter – the birth of Facebook in The Social Network, baseball statistics with Moneyball – and he tries to wring suspense out of high stakes poker games. There is a lot of technical talk about the game itself and the strategies involved, much of which will go over the head of the uninitiated. However, the poker scenes have been superbly edited by Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham and Josh Schaeffer, and they bring some tension to the poker games. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s camera often moves around the static sets adding a sense of energy.
As expected though the script itself smart, literate and full of the crackling whip smart dialogue that Sorkin is well known for. Not all actors can handle Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue, but both Chastain and Elba make it sing here. There is good chemistry between the pair in their discussions of strategies and Molly’s background and their scenes crackle.
Chastain has played tough and formidable female characters before in films like Zero Dark Thirty and more recently Miss Sloane. There are some parallels between her character in that drama and her headstrong, tough but flawed Molly, who has plenty of personal baggage. Chastain immerses herself in the role, and she brings a mix of strength and vulnerability to her subtle and nuanced performance. Jaffey is actually a fictitious character based on Bloom’s real lawyer, but Elba brings an unflappable quality to his performance in what is a rather cliched role. But he is a charismatic performer and he manages to bring some depth to the role.
Kevin Costner brings his usual integrity and gravitas to his role as Molly’s estranged father, a psychologist who has instilled in his children a strong fear of failure. There is a strong supporting cast that includes Bill Camp and Chris O’Dowd as many of Molly’s regular players, each is given their own backstory and character arcs. Michael Cera plays the predatory but charismatic Player X, who is supposedly a composite of four famous Hollywood stars who were regulars at Molly’s poker games.
Sorkin also makes his directorial debut here, but his handling of the material is a little uneven and there are issues with the pacing. He brings an almost documentary like approach to the material. Some unnecessary padding forces extends the running time to a bloated 140 minutes. The film is a little too long, and the second half flags a little and becomes less interesting with its attempts to psychoanalyse Molly.
Molly’s Game is another film based on a true story ripped from the headlines, but unlike the brash, wildly kinetic and irreverent I, Tonya, this is a lot more credible and less reliant on unreliable narrators in searching for the truth about its flawed female protagonist. Molly Bloom and her story is probably less well known than that of Tonya Harding the disgraced former Olympic ice figure skater, but it still makes for solid viewing.