The true brothers and sisters of the bet will tell you poker is a game of skill, not chance. It’s more than likely Aaron Sorkin agrees with them. After all, he treats his screenwriting like the highest staked ante this side of Monte Carlo. There’s a touch of the riverboat gambler in the way he’ll glad-hand and schmooze his audience, keeping us wined and dined, while ever burrowing his loquacious hand closer to his chest until it’s time to call in the most dramatic of speeches. Hence Molly’s Game is a near pitch perfect directorial debut for the storyteller. It’s a movie that flows as quickly as his ratatatat dialogue, ever discarding and raising at a dizzying pace, while placing its real Ace up the sleeve in plain sight. And her name is Jessica Chastain.
Indeed, with a flicker in her countenance that causes characters and viewers alike to wonder when she’s bluffing, Chastain gives a magnificent turn as a woman who might be Sorkin’s most quick-witted hero to date. Always one of our generation’s best actors, Chastain complements Sorkin’s need to double deal on audience expectations in this tale about a “poker princess,” who eternally dresses the part, if only because she can use words as both her armor and weaponry. It may rely on its origins in tabloid fodder to gets audiences to the table, but once there it becomes clear there’s so much more on the line.
Based in the broadest sense on Molly Bloom’s gossipy confessional of the same name, Molly’s Game sees Sorkin embrace the illicit backroom revelations of a woman who ran a legally nebulous poker table for the rich and creepy in Los Angeles and New York for nearly a decade. However, the filmmaker wants to cruise past the headlines, refusing to name celebrity players like Bloom’s actual memoir does; it instead wishes to expose the vice and virtues that would allow a woman to flourish in a man cave’s world, even as its intersection with the most toxic of masculine dens—the mafia—makes her a target for both Manhattan leg-breakers, and then the more WASPy kind that quickly follow in the starched shape of FBI suits.
Couched in the familiar Sorkin conceit of an impending courtroom trial and deadly deposition, Molly’s story is one where she must find the buried humanity within to win over the pricy yet quixotically moral lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), as well as make sense of her own life story. Here is a woman who surrounded herself with movie star scum bags like the film’s “Player X” (Michael Cera), shady hedge fund managers (Brian d’Arcy James and Chris O’Dowd), and slimey New York society elites (Jon Bass), while making millions doing so… even though she once was an Olympics-bound skier trained by her unforgiving father (Kevin Costner) to rule the world.
The answer to Molly’s enigma is as compelling to Sorkin’s dealings as any gliding shot of flushed hands and crashing chips.
As mentioned, this really is entirely Chastain’s movie, and she rules over it far more imperiously than even her character’s “poker princess” tagline might suggest. As a character who is constantly undervalued by men upon first encounters, including perhaps the audience due to her coquettish fashion, Chastain’s smolder is disarming by design. Her intellect and lion’s share of stinging Sorkinese one-liners allows her to quickly dominate every conversation, and the real merits of the film’s gambit become apparent.
Chastain and Sorkin’s Molly is a woman who clawed her way to the top of one corner of an entitled man’s arena after another. Be it playing by the rules of her stern father on the ski slopes of Aspen, the secretarial work that bores Molly in her early 20s, or in the most decadent of glorified barrooms, Molly continuously struts into hostile territory with a light smile and plenty of décolletage that only barely masks her ambitious defiance. The mere fact that the movie wisely and efficiently chooses to ignore any and all details of Molly’s private life beyond her relationship with her father underscores how slyly principled the film is about its real interests. Thus it becomes strangely prescient for this year and subtly feminist—or at least as subtly as an Aaron Sorkin screenplay will allow.
To be sure, Sorkin does well adapting his own work to motion. While never quite as slick or fluid as when a Fincher or Boyle gets their hands on his words, the first-time director does well by emphasizing an editing pattern that consistently tries to match the gait of his sprinting conversationalists. The coolness of a world filled with poker players and smiling courtesies (if rarely from the players themselves) only buoys the tone. As does when Elba and Chastain can spar about criminal law, legal fees, and perhaps Sorkin’s greatest passion, American theater (just wait for the Arthur Miller shoutouts).
But as kinetic as Chastain’s and Elba’s spirited volleys might be, there is still an edge of Sorkin’s love for the preachy and sometimes sanguine that creeps into the third act as stands are made, often while practically staring directly into the camera. Eventually, even coy can become cloying at times.
Fortunately, these sermons come late after the pot is already won, and the spoils are big enough to divvy among any audience. With a fully committed cast and a lead performance so tremendous that it is sure to shoot Chastain to the short list for Best Actress this awards season, Molly’s Game leaves it all on the table. Also by the same token, it’s worth going all-in for too.
Molly’s Game opens on Christmas Day.