Movie Review: Molly’s Game

The story of a woman who ran a Hollywood poker game avoids the tabloid aspects

Molly’s Game (Velká hra)
Directed by Aaron Sorkin
With Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O'Dowd, Bill Camp

Underground gambling, Hollywood movie stars, and mobsters come together in Molly’s Game, a legal thriller based on a true story.

The film tracks the life and underground poker career of Molly Bloom (played by Jessica Chastain), a real former athlete who through a strange set of events becomes the operator of a high-stakes poker game. At the start of the film, she has just written a book about her exploits and is in the midst of a publicity tour.

But right away. Molly is arrested by the FBI, despite her exploits being years ago. Her life is told in a fragmentary flashback as her case proceeds.

But the film is not a standard courtroom drama, and Molly is depicted neither as a hero or a villain. Chastain is a charismatic actress, and it is hard to dislike her depiction of Molly.

Despite the subject matter and Hollywood setting for part of it, the film doesn’t turn into a sleazy tabloid tale, which is an accomplishment.

The main relationship that drives the film forward in the one between Molly and Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) the man she approaches to be her lawyer. The chemistry between the two actors is excellent, with Elba making another compelling character out of a relatively small amount of screen time.

Jaffey is intrigued by Molly, and his attempts to find out what makes her tick give the film some of its best moments.

The legal aspects of the case are a bit complicated and Jaffey helps to make them understandable for the audience.

One of the people playing in the games that Molly runs is supposed to be a major film star, although all the names in the film have been changed. Michael Cera portrays the mysterious Player X, a composite of several A-list actors. He could have been cast with a more engaging star, though several obvious choices might have had a good reason for wanting to avoid the role. Cera, known mostly for independent films, offbeat comedies, and TV work, was outside of the group of people who would have been involved in the real-life game.

The games themselves create another line of suspense, as the stakes are very high. The film doesn’t spend too long on explaining the rules, but some graphics on-screen help to guide viewers through some of the more dramatic moments of the betting.

An additional plotline includes Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner) as Molly’s father. He has impossibly high standards and goals for his kids. He appears in flashbacks, with younger actresses playing a 7-year-old and a teen Molly.

The film clocks in at 140 minutes. Many of the flashbacks to childhood could have been cut to get the film in at under two hours, but in the end, the film is better for including them to give a more complex picture of who Molly is and what motivated her.

Aaron Sorkin makes his directing debut with the film, working from his own script. As a writer, he won an Oscar for The Social Network and was nominated for Money Ball. He has also won Emmy Awards for his TV work on West Wing.

His direction is rapid-paced, sometimes a little too brisk, seldom leaving room for any relaxing scenes.

His script condenses a lot of material while trying to keep faithful to the multilayered story. One drawback is an excess of rapid-fire narration that has the film telling rather than showing the action. Even at well over two hours, the story feels a bit rushed.

Molly’s Game avoids one trap that a lot of films about gambling fall into, which is glamorizing the subject. By having Molly arrested at the start of the film, the audience knows the overall direction where things are headed. Some of the locations, though, do have a veneer of high class, and there are some attractive women used to bait the prospective poker players, so the film is not devoid of eye candy.

The film already has some award nominations, with the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards both singling out Chastain’s performance and Sorkin’s script, but not his direction. It is a shame Idris Elba was overlooked in the nominations, as he was in four films in 2017, making good impressions in all of them. He almost made The Dark Tower watchable and pulled The Mountain Between Us out of its more saccharine moments. His fourth film was a small bit in Thor: Ragnarok.

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