D: Aaron Sorkin / 140m
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd, J.C. MacKenzie, Brian d’Arcy James, Bill Camp, Graham Greene, Jon Bass
With the issue of women trying to get ahead in a “man’s world” receiving so much attention right now, the arrival of Aaron Sorkin’s debut as a director seems like very good timing indeed. Based on the true story of Molly Bloom (Chastain), a potential Olympic-class skier forced to retire through injury, and how she came to run one of the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker games – twice, Sorkin’s debut is a dazzling whirl through the twilight world of underground gambling where fortunes are won and lost at the turn of a card. Molly begins her second career while working for Dean Keith (Strong), a struggling businessman who hosts his own underground game, and who tells her to oversee the game each week. When her relationship with Keith becomes irretrievably strained, she starts up her own game, steals away one of his main players, an actor referred to as Player X (Cera), and begins to make a name for herself. Avoiding taking a cut of the money being wagered, Molly isn’t doing anything illegal, but she falls foul of Player X’s ego and the game is taken away from her. She moves to New York where she starts another game but this time she begins to take a cut. She bows out after a couple of years, but two years later, finds herself being arrested and charged with, amongst other things, money laundering. Enter the man who will represent her in court, Charlie Jaffey (Elba)…
Like many biopics, Molly’s Game doesn’t tell Bloom’s real story, but instead uses its bare bones to explore a world where gambling is its own addictive drug of choice, and the players wage obscene amounts of money for the thrill of it. It’s a world that Sorkin portrays with a great deal of fidelity, but while it’s an interesting and compelling world to spend time in – and the movie spends as much time there as it can – it does mean that Molly herself is placed firmly in the background. There are too many times where she’s the observer, watching the players while offering a pointed commentary on their habits and foibles. The movie is on firmer ground when it’s showing the process by which Molly and Jaffey spar their way to a workable defence strategy, with her refusal to implicate others or break her own self-imposed ethical code, proving at odds with Jaffey’s efforts to keep her out of jail. The scenes between Chastain and Elba crackle with an urgency and an intensity that isn’t always there when Molly’s past is being recounted, and while Sorkin the director in conjunction with editors Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham, and Josh Schaeffer, keeps things moving at quite a lick (the running time doesn’t feel like it’s anywhere near two hours and twenty minutes), the movie’s non-linear approach does undercut any potential or hard-earned momentum.
But if there’s one area of the screenplay that no one should worry about, it’s the dialogue. This is a movie where the dialogue is so well structured and so well held together through the various vocal rhythms associated with the characters, that not one word feels false or sounds awkward when it’s spoken. Sorkin’s good ear works its magic as usual, and there are times when it’s easy to believe that Molly et al spoke these actual words during the real-life situations being depicted. Even a scene late on between Molly and her uncompromising father (Costner), a scene that screams plot contrivance at the top of its lungs, is so deftly written that you can almost forgive the hackneyed nature of it. Sorkin is also well served by his cast, with Chastain and Elba both giving terrific performances, and they in turn are given equally terrific support from the likes of Costner, Cera, and O’Dowd. This is a confident debut feature from Sorkin, and even though some of it feels a little stretched in terms of “did it really happen that way?” there’s no denying the energy and the appeal of seeing one woman carving out her own niche in a man’s world and sticking to her own principles while she does it.
Rating: 8/10 – top-notch performances from Chastain and Elba added to another script full of riches from Sorkin (and his surprisingly flexible direction) make Molly’s Game a hugely enjoyable movie even when it steers perilously close to Movie Biopic Clichés 101; if you’re not into poker some of this will go way over your head, and there are a few silly missteps along the way, but otherwise this is a fast-paced, freewheeling, and above all fun experience that doesn’t rely on depth or subtexts at all in telling Bloom’s story.