(3.5 stars out of 4)
I don’t know the first thing about poker. It’s important to state this upfront because going into Molly’s Game — the fantastic new Aaron Sorkin movie about the ultimate card shark — I was worried about keeping up with spitfire talk of flops and rivers. Now that I’ve seen it, I can safely proclaim that . . . I was utterly confused. And it didn’t make a lick of difference. Sorkin, who writes and makes his directorial debut, tells a masterful thriller-like story about a determined woman who went from freestyle skier to high-stakes poker ringleader.
If there’s been one knock against Sorkin in his legendary career, it’s that he doesn’t write women well. While the men in his productions are hyper-articulate, brilliant leaders unafraid to challenge authority, the neurotic females spend their time fussing over said men. That is, if they’re on the screen at all. Think Social Network, A Few Good Men, Moneyball, Steve Jobs and TV work such as The West Wing and The Newsroom. Molly’s Game is the ultimate, well, game changer. Jessica Chastain’s Molly Bloom is the one calling the shots here. Even when FBI agents raid her apartment in the middle of the night to bust her for running an illegal gambling ring, she never panics. The confident, no-nonsense Bloom sees men as clients who pay her salary, not sex objects. She’s an unlikely heroine but an inspiring one.
Bloom learned poker by accident. For the first act of her life, she was an Olympian-caliber freestyle skier. She had to go downhill and turn flips in the air and stick a landing in the equivalent of “a frozen infinity pool.” Being an elite athlete requires a certain kind of drive, stamina and discipline. These character traits serve her well when she becomes injured and starts over in Los Angeles. She becomes an assistant to a jerk of a real-estate developer who runs a VIP, $10,000-a-head poker came at the Cobra Club (i.e., the Viper Room). She organizes the games and collects tips at the end. For the first game, she wears a plain JCPenney frock. By the time she’s taking a bigger cut of the pie, she’s dressing as the “Cinemax version of myself.” She soon starts running her own games in suites at posh hotels, and her players are all bold-faced names, big-time players and gambling addicts. Then she goes to NYC, where she becomes entangled with the mafia. It’s not until she publishes a memoir, titled Molly’s Game, that the FBI finally catches up with her.
Apologies for the rapid plot recap. Consider it an homage to Sorkin, who seems allergic to leisurely, linear narratives. Like Social Network, Sorkin weaves Bloom’s story by zipping between past, deep past and present with relative ease. (Only here, Chastain narrates via voiceover.) As a would-be criminal, she and her skeptical lawyer (Idris Elba) plot a defense in which she stands by her motives. As a teen, she mouths off to her demanding/caring father (a sturdy Kevin Costner). As a poker princess, she meticulously organizes her finances on spread sheets while fending off advances from married rock stars. The erratic, ever-fascinating timeline begs you to pay attention to every word — it’s impossible to even process some of the thought-provoking lines of dialogue because the next one is quickly coming up the pike.
The one constant in this frenzy is Bloom’s pursuit to succeed without folding. Chastain tears into the material with the ferociousness of a starving wolf. She’s funny and focused while allowing herself some soft-spoken introspection. (She admits to her father that she was a brat to her dad.) The actress has shown incredible versatility since bursting onto the scene in 2011’s The Help. She gave a preview of this performance playing a dogged agent in Zero Dark Thirty and hard-charging lobbyist in last year’s little-seen Miss Sloane. She puts it all together here.
The men sitting in the outer-circle all make lasting impressions as well. Most notable: Michael Cera as a popular actor and spectacular card man who goes by “Player X.” Soft-spoken by nature, he’s the quiet villain sitting at the table desperate to shift the power dynamic. Who is he really? Molly refuses to name names. This is a big sticking point with her. And even when she’s stripped of her money, she will not sell out because she stakes her reputation on the name Molly Bloom. (Her heritage is Russian Jew, she points out. She’s not Irish).
The movie is too long, saddled with an unwieldy finale. The terrific Elba delivers a grand speech that might as well launch with “You can’t handle the truth!” For several minutes, he lionizes Bloom and her ideals. It received applause in the premiere screening but I thought it veered on grandstanding. Bloom is admirable but, well, she didn’t go to war or invent Facebook, you know? An end scene with Costner also felt shoe-horned and out of character. Still . . . men near me were crying.
Whatever. This is one of my favorite films of the year. It’s snappy, flashy and high-quality bang for your bucks. The screenplay will be studied in film classes as an example how to up the ante on dynamic mainstream entertainment. In other words, this is vintage Sorkin. I mean that as the highest possible compliment. Who’s in?
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Molly’s Game is in theaters everywhere on Monday, December 25.
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