Synopsis – The true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game and became an FBI target.
My Take – Let me start by saying that I have no interest in poker or any form of gambling whatsoever, hence I have hardly ever been prompted into checking out any film based on the game, in fact the Robert Luketic directed mundane film, 21 (2008) is the only one for some reason I sat through. However, when legendary screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball, Charlie Wilson’s War) officially stepped in to helm his first film as both writer and director, on the card game, I was genuinely intrigued. Known for his impressive writing style, who could turn even the dullest material into something interesting and engaging, writer/director Sorkin has proved his magic with The Social Network (2010), a superb film surrounding the formation of Facebook and of course the much hyped 2015 biopic on Steve Jobs, were the sharp writing and the focus on the key points in Jobs‘ life made for a seriously entertaining watch. Here in his directorial debut based on the memoir ‘Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker’, he explores the world of poker by bringing us the true story of Molly Bloom, in film that not only has one of the best screenplays from his ever growing library, but is also one of the most fast-paced but intricately thought out plots I have seen in recent times. By spending less time at the table and lowering the focus on the ingredients of the complex game, here, director Sorkin keeps us engaged with an intense drama, that is not only a fascinating biopic but also an impressively acted piece all around, particularly with Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain, two of the finest actors working today, leading the charge.
The story follows Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier, whose career ends prematurely due to a freak accident. Giving up on her dreams, despite the disapproval of her father/trainer (Kevin Costner), Molly moves to L.A. and starts working as a cocktail waitress to pay her bills, until she meets Dean (Jeremy Strong), an arrogant real estate agent, who offers her a job as his assistant at his office as well as during his lucrative weekly poker game, which hosts some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Learning everything about the game during this period, Molly quickly severs ties with Dean, and finds herself running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker games, first in L.A. and then in New York. Drug addiction, mob violence and many billionaire suitors follow before finally, the FBI catches up with Molly and she’s prosecuted for organizing illegal gambling. The criminal charges lead Molly into the offices of defense attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), whom she persuades to defend her in court and the pair fights to uphold her name. Being a sucker for great stories of real life characters, it is easy to see what director Aaron Sorkin saw in the very true tale of Molly Bloom, as the American ethos of being No. 1 combined with the isolation and principles of its heroine made this film a tremendous playing field for his directorial debut. Starting the film well, with a well executed and wince- inducing freestyle skiing sequence. From here we are in L.A., and the poker sequences are fluid and engrossing in a Goodfellas style that is indebted to Scorsese without being derivative in a manner of American Hustle. The film is a series of dialogue-driven scenes that never seem to stop until the credits roll, by throwing you into the life of Molly as a waitress, only to see her grow into a woman who assists in running a high-roller underground poker event, this film wastes no time on the small stuff. For a film that’s so dialogue heavy, the film has a hefty runtime of 140 minutes, however, thanks to the quickness of the screenplay and the quality of the performances, it’s a film that absolutely flies by. Whenever it seems as though a certain plot point is starting to drag, it jumps forward in time, either immersing you in an intense game of poker, an emotional moment with a family member, or simply a double-cross by one of the players. That’s in large part thanks to Sorkin‘s direction of the lengthy dialogue scenes, particularly the sequences involving Elba and Chastain‘s back and forth in an office. Sometimes all it takes to progress the plot and provide a jolt of energy is putting two incredible actors in the same room. Yes, those scenes are impeccably written, but it also brings this larger than life story back to reality and adds humanity to the main character of Molly. Don’t mistake this for a poker film, sure cards and chips are everywhere, but this is Molly’s story, and director Sorkin wisely simplifies the poker details and focuses more on Molly’s brilliant strategy to build her business, of course, there wouldn’t be much to this were it just rich people playing poker. The world which the film depicts is a seedy, exploitative one full of affairs, drugs and gambling for astronomical stakes. Some poker knowledge will be helpful but is by no means essential as the poker games are played out with an energy that’s easy to get swept along by and although the Sorkin banter can become slightly wearing at times, the emotional heart of this true story still hits home.
The thing about an Aaron Sorkin script is there’s little room for subtext. In between crackling paragraphs of dialogue, expertly assembled scenes of dramatic irony and dizzying explanations of complex contemporary topics, there’s just not that much left for the visuals to add, other than restating what’s already said aloud, this isn’t a bad thing – all the above makes his films and television series’ so re-watchable. Even though he has dealt with themes of power, loyalty and the darker side of entrepreneurial endeavors before, what sets this story apart is that director Sorkin chooses to layer the rise-and-fall of the titular character with questions about business morals and the loss of a more principled economic system, that has been washed away by fast-buck artists and fatalistic devil-may-care attitudes. What makes this thoroughly capable crime film truly intriguing, though, are its subtle changes in theme from much of Sorkin’s past work and most of American cinema’s flashier, higher-profile dramas. While Molly is an extremely capable woman who has enjoyed a great deal of success in her life, her cinematic story is framed through her failures. It begins with her literal fall from Olympic grace, and then quickly cuts to her being arrested as her attempt at a second act in life comes crashing down. The notion of chance and luck versus hard work and personal culpability is also introduced in these moments, and recurs throughout the film. Poker, as Molly proudly argues, is a game of skill, not a game of chance, and it’s clear that throughout most of her life, she has seen her existence in a similar fashion – and herself as both a master player and the architect of her own demise. But she’s also someone whose biggest goal in life was thwarted by a fluke. Having said that, Sorkin‘s screenplay isn’t always on point. The sub-plot of Molly & her strained relationship with her father (isn’t entirely engaging, it’s these bits that appear flabby & take away some glory from the film. Plus, it’s hard to ignore how the film at times bears a slight resemblance to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Thankfully, director Sorkin also has one of the best leading ladies in his film, as Jessica Chastain with a superlative performance, completely empowers the show! Chastain has previously proved that she is a force to be reckoned with but this is her finest hour as she is drives the film forward with such ferocity and composure. She has never looked this gorgeous before & her performance is full of heart & soul. Truly among her strongest performances and a deserving Golden Globe nomination. However, it’s not only Chastain who gets to shine here as her co-stars do an admirable job of keeping up, particularly Idris Elba, who takes what could be a thankless sidekick role and makes it his own. The scenes the pair share being noticeable high points of the film. There are a host of supporting characters who all add different dimensions to the narrative, Kevin Costner as the authoritative father figure is good, Bill Camp puts in a great performance as Harlan Eustice, a seemingly competent poker player who starts to feel the heat, Brian d’Arcy James as the totally inept poker player Bad Brad is likable and Chris O’Dowd as Douglas Downey, the man who introduced Molly to the mob is hilarious, even Jeremy Strong manages to stand out. However, stealing the show here in a smaller role is Michael Cera, who uses his youthful demeanor as a mask for a wicked personality. This has to be is most malevolent role since Youth In Revolt (2009). On the whole, ‘Molly’s Game’ is a highly entertaining and fast-moving film that will emotionally overwhelm you with its marvelous performances, excellent writing and brilliant direction.
Directed – Aaron Sorkin
Rated – R
Run Time – 140 minutes