A film review by Craig J. Koban January 13, 2018

RANK: #10

MOLLY'S GAME jjjj
 

2017, R, 140 mins.

 

Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom  /  Idris Elba as Charlie Jaffey  /  Kevin Costner as Larry Bloom  /  Michael Cera as Player X  /  Brian d'Arcy James as Bad Brad

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Molly Bloom

The timing of MOLLY'S GAME could not have been any better, seeing as this reality based crime drama has been released in a post-Harvey Weinstein Hollywood and contains a story of a fiercely savvy and indomitable career minded woman that - through self-empowerment and gritty determination - becomes a success by having huge power over powerful men...and men that once had power over her.  

Yes, she forges a million dollar underground poker empire that eventually got her into serious trouble with the law, but she nevertheless is a single-mindedly driven and self sufficient woman in a largely male dominated profession driven by rampant misogyny.  Best of all, MOLLY'S GAME has the brilliant Jessica Chastain - in one of her finest performances - quarterbacking the charge alongside writer/director Aaron Sorkin (making his directorial debut), and it's a cinematic marriage made in proverbial heaven. 

Sorkin in particular feels like a pitch perfect match for this type of material.  Of course, he has penned some of the best movie scripts of our current generation in MONEYBALL, THE SOCIAL NETWORK (for which he received the Oscar) and the terribly underrated STEVE JOBS, not to mention that his tour de force work on the small screen for THE WEST WING and THE NEWSROOM helped cement his stature.  And his dialogue - with its rapid fire delivery, acerbic wit, scathing verbal zingers, and never look back tenacity - helps make characters that would otherwise be cookie cutter props feel positively poetic.  As a director, Sorkin handles the dense material and themes of MOLLY'S GAME with the poise of an industry veteran that's been behind the camera for a lifetime, and you can really sense the joy he has in bringing the remarkable story of Molly Bloom to life, whom at 26-years-old ran an incredibly lucrative high stakes poker game that attracted wealthy businessmen, sports figures, and A-list movie actors (such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, and Tobey Maguire).  And Sorkin's direction, rather miraculously so, manages to match his dialogue's dynamic pacing; at well over two hours, MOLLY'S GAME rushes by like a fever dream and never overstays its welcome. 

 

 

Molly (Chastain) herself is such a richly fascinating and multifaceted character, and we're introduced to her in an absolutely sensational opening sequence that simultaneously establishes her as a persona with a ferocious focus and Sorkin as a master of cross cutting and high energy verbiage.  In it we meet Molly as a potential Olympic hopeful skier that, due to a horrendous bit of bad luck - and an ill placed tree branch - suffered a career ending injury that all but destroyed her athletic career and strained her relationship with her psychiatrist father (Kevin Costner), who spent a lifetime training her.  Through these flashbacks and accompanying voiceover track (which for once feels crucial and not lazily forced in), we learn that Molly decided to abandon law school and sports and instead does a little soul searching, moving to L.A. and taking an odd job as a lowly secretary.  It is through this job though, that she becomes intimately introduced into the world of high stakes poker games that caters to the aforementioned movie moguls and celebrities of all creeds.   

Something then clicks for her; she realizes that - with persistent effort and some by-the-seat-of-your-pants decision making - she could start her own poker game and lure in big game clients, one of them being a Hollywood star "Player X" (a chillingly effective Michael Cera, who is rumored to playing Tobey Maguire here),  that initially helps her in ensnaring more players with fat wallets.  After some devastating setbacks, Molly is forced to relocate to New York, where she does manage to find massive success, but only while attracting the attention of the Russian and American mob, which in turn catches the eyes of the FBI.  She was eventually arrested and charged two years after running her last game and while the book about her life - which this film is based on - was being released to the public. 

Once MOLLY'S GAME gets off and running it has a nearly unstoppable forward momentum as Sorkin confidently traverses through the various stages of Molly's life that saw her deal with athletic tragedy, then spiritual rebirth, and then on a path for change that led to her securing herself as an underground legend in her field.  Even though she ended up dealing with some rather unprincipled people that led to her demise, she steadfastedly stood by her principles, even when her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) begs her to take a plea bargain that could jeopardize the lives of many of her past clients.  The most endlessly compelling dynamic in MOLLY'S GAME is between Molly and Charlie, seeing as he's initially reluctant - and rightfully so - to take on such a potentially risky client whose money is tied up in seized cash from questionable sources, but he has a change of heart when he sees her as a victim of circumstance and a person that clearly got in over her head.  The chemistry between Elba and Chastain is undeniably potent and Sorkin is wise enough to not allow for it to traverse down any artificially scripted romantic detours.  Molly is never developed in terms of her relationship with a man, but rather by how she achieves success on her own terms segregated from men.  She needs Charlie for professional reasons to get her out of a legal shit storm. 

Chastain has given one remarkably potent performance after another in her career, but here she becomes almost hypnotic to watch as she comes alive in harnessing Sorkin's rat-ta-tat dialogue and in the manner that she imbues in her character a fiery resolve and intensely focused conviction.  Occupying nearly every scene in the film, she brings Molly exhilaratingly to life as one of the silver screen's best realized female characters in quite some time.  She's flawlessly matched, as mentioned, with Elba, a routinely fine actor that has regrettably been in some mediocre to bad movies as of late (such as THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US and THE DARK TOWER), but here he does a stalwart job of playing the trickiest role in MOLLY'S GAME as a deeply pragmatic legal eagle that is honor bound to his client despite knowing that she has dealt with some very dishonorable people.  He has a deliciously potent speech in the film's closing act defending Molly's honor to the feds that reinforces why Elba is arguably one of the best actors around that hasn't had his talents properly and consistently harnessed.   

MOLLY'S GAME is also well stacked with solid supporting players, such as Cera, who comes the closest to playing a villain for the first time in his career as the conniving celeb poker shark that loves eviscerating his prey at the table.  I also liked Brian d'Arcy as a hedge fund manager that's shockingly rich and shockingly lacking in poker skills.  Costner brings an understated gravitas and low key menace to his overbearing father.  Performances aside, MOLLY'S GAME is also a rock solid poker movie, and Sorkin doesn't shy away from that aspect, seeing as he finds a unique and visually appealing manner of showcasing how the game is ultimately a cerebral battleground.  Watching multiple scenes of players call, bluff, and sweat their way through victories and losses, I was reminded that poker - by Molly's logical estimation - is not a game of chance that players win and lose at...it's a game of skill.  MOLLY'S GAME does a brutally efficient job of relaying how the game can turn winners into unstoppable juggernauts and losers into soul crushed victims of their own obsessive need to win again when common sense should tell them to otherwise stop. 

MOLLY'S GAME is an unqualified triumph for Sorkin, who can now confidently add accomplished director to his resume alongside being a supremely gifted writer.  His characteristic brand of snappy dialogue that his actors hungrily and enthusiastically harness helps give MOLLY'S GAME a propulsive energy (this is one of the joyously rare films that doesn't rely on action to propel scenes forward and create nail biting tension, but rather via words spoken).  More crucially, Sorkin's film feels like a meta-commentary/response to our current era of how embattled women struggle to make a life and ends meet in a male ego-driven movie industry.  What makes Molly so unwaveringly strong as a character and figure of interest is that she plays by her own rules and on her own time, and all while building a business venture - albeit with criminal caveats - that was the product of her own doing apart from male influence.  At one point Molly lashes back at the scrutinizing questions of her attorney "If you think a princess can do what I did, you’re incorrect!"  

No arguments here. 

  H O M E