Film Review | Molly's Game

This biopic of the real-life “Poker Princess” is rich pickings for the master of rapid-fire dialogue Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, with a star turn from its already-accomplished lead Jessica Chastain • 3/5

Here’s a film about winning at capitalism while working from the sidelines. Written and directed by rapid-fire dialogue maestro Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network, The Newsroom) in what is in fact his debut behind the camera, Molly’s Game stars Jessica Chastain as the eponymous thwarted Olympic skier turned overnight poker impresario, and is only partly adapted from the book of the same name.

And its decision to expand on the source material is interesting weave in and of itself, as the trajectory of Molly Bloom (Chastain) here defies an ingrained Hollywood habit of simply adapting non-fiction books or articles with as much pizzazz and dynamism as it can manage (see also: The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short, Argo...).

Instead, Sorkin cleverly pinpoints how the real meat of the story lies beyond the pages of the tell-all memoir that Bloom wrote in a desperate attempt to stave off the financial ruin that was incoming after her attempt to – quite literally – game her way up into the American Dream was violently punctured.

Because the initial hook is this: raised by a put-upon mother and a pushy psychologist father (Kevin Coster) and flanked by over-achieving siblings, Bloom’s promising skiing career was ground to a halt in the wake of an in-competition injury. Leaving the homestead to drift along in New York, she lands a job as an assistant to shady real estate agent Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong). When he one day asks her to take care of logistics for an underground poker game he’s running, Molly initially rolls her eyes at having to take care of yet another thankless task. But soon enough, Molly realises that learning the ins-and-outs of the elite poker scene might just be her ticket out of the rut she’s put herself in. Having gained the players’ trust, she siphons them off into her own operation – moving them away from the legendary-but-dingy Cobra Club and into a fancy suite of a fancy hotel.

For a while, things run smoothly for all involved. However, Molly is not the only one capable of manipulating the stakes in her favour, and things go south once a regular – a superstar actor of some standing – decides he wants to do some siphoning of his own. And that’s before Molly unwittingly lets the Russian mob in on her games...

Two years after the publication of her book detailing all of the above, Molly is arrested in her home by a small army of fully-armed FBI agents. No lawyers want to take her case, and neither does “the cleanest one she could find”, Charles Jaffey (Idris Elba). But as he begins to sort through the nuances of the accusations levelled against her, he begins to see that Molly has more moral fibre than her story suggests.

As can be expected from Sorkin, the scenes in which this theatre veteran really shines are the ones when his dialogue is allowed to go full tilt; when we can savour two characters simply talking as if we’re enjoying a great stage production. They are Sorkin’s equivalents of large action set pieces in tentpole blockbusters, and here we have a few extended sequences between Chastain and Elba where they get to play out with aplomb. Though Sorkin’s directorial arm may need some loosening up – unfair comparisons abound, but having a script previously directed by David Fincher has a way of bringing current niggles to the fore – it’s clear that he’s created a good space for his leads to be at their best.

Elba submerges his titanic presence and imposing physique behind fusty clothing and a disarming – but never distracting – vocal tic that makes him a humane, fastidious presence that’s only aided along by the volcanic repositories of energy you know he’s got stashed away.

But of course it’s Chastain who commands all the presence and deserves the bulk of the praise. Bloom is both a gaudy and world-weary presence; highly educated and weaned to operate on sporty precision and focus, she also knows that the world of poker requires her to “glamour-up” all the time – a tool she wields with equal parts cynicism and enthusiasm.

A timely story of a woman breaking through a man’s world, Molly’s Game is delivered with typical verbal flair from Sorkin, even if the somewhat staid directorial style of his debut fails to match the thrilling, stagey bombast of the film’s finest verbal slugfests. With energetic and intelligent central performances from Chastain and Elba, and an compelling double-story structure, it makes for classy entertainment. Against typical biopic formula, this is not a celebratory whooping race to the finish line... which was anyway denied to Molly at a crucial point in her skiing career. And it’s even less of a morality tale, though Molly’s unfussy wellspring of integrity will certainly inspire
admiration.

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