“Molly’s Game” is as talky and snappy as you can expect from a work written by Aaron Sorkin, who makes a directorial debut here in this film. While it surely has numerous lengthy dialogue scenes where its characters talk quite a lot, these dialogue scenes always draw our attention because of the considerable wit and eloquence in Sorkin’s writing, and, above all, they are fueled by the lead performer’s fierce, intelligent performance.
Based on Molly Bloom’s nonfiction book “Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker”. the Sorkin’s adapted screenplay begins its story with one defining moment in Bloom’s life. Bloom (Jessica Chastain) was once a promising skier looking forward to playing in Winter Olympics someday, but the unfortunate accident at an important competition virtually ended her skiing career, so she came to change her life plan a bit. She was supposed to go to a law school, but she decided to postpone her enrollment for spending one free year in LA.
In LA, she initially works as a nightclub waitress, but then she comes to work for a real estate guy named Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong). She works as a mere secretary for him at first, but, after noticing her cleverness and resourcefulness, Keith later offers her another job. He has a hike-stakes underground poker business behind his back, and he needs someone to assist him in handling those big-time Hollywood clients of his.
Once she sees how much more she can earn through this ‘extra’ job, Bloom soon goes all the way for getting more money and empowerment. When she comes to clash with her boss, she swiftly sweeps up his every important client to her own high-stakes underground poker business, and it does not take much time for her to be on the top of her business field. One of the most fun parts in the film is how she achieves her success step by step, and that enjoyable process is further boosted by a number of high-stakes poker scenes in the film. While these scenes are mostly packed with myriad terms and details, we seldom get confused as the movie briskly and excitingly bounces from one poker scene to another, and we gladly go along with that as often amused and excited by whatever is happening on the poker table.
The movie pays some attention to two particular clients of hers. One is Harlan Eustice (Bill Camp), and this expert poker player comes to lose his bearing when he unfortunately makes an absurd wrong judgment at one point. Camp, who recently drew my attention with his Emmy-nominated supporting turn in HBO miniseries “The Night Of”, is simply devastating as his character is gradually mired in more misery and obsession, and we come to feel sorry for his character as much as Bloom in the end.
The other one is a young A-list Hollywood guy who is referred to as “Player X” (Michael Cera) in the film. He is a nasty competitive prick who enjoys not only defeating his opponents but also destroying their confidence and spirit, and, not so surprisingly, he later turns out to be far nastier than expected. Cera is very effective in his against-the-type role, and he surely surprises us as showing that he can look quite unpleasant and malicious.
Meanwhile, the movie also focuses on Bloom’s serious legal problem which happens several years after she eventually leaves LA and then goes to New York City. She begins her high-stakes underground poker business again there, and she soon attracts many big-time clients as before, but, unfortunately, some of her clients turn out to be Russian mobsters. When these guys are arrested, the prosecutor handling the case demands Bloom to reveal her clients, but she refuses to do that even though she already reveals some of them through her tell-all book.
As she sees that she may go to jail for this, she goes to a lawyer named Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who is reluctant at first but eventually agrees to take the case. Elba, a charismatic actor who can instantly grab our attention, dials down his intensity level a bit for supporting Chastain, but he has his own moment later in the movie, and he ably delivers it with power and conviction.
The movie falters when it attempts to tell us what makes Bloom tick. While it is quite clear to us already that Bloom’s edgy, competitive personality is originated from her strained relationship with her father Larry (Kevin Costner), Sorkin tries to explain his heroine directly to us via a rather blatant and contrived scene between her and her father, and the movie loses some of its narrative momentum as a result.
Nevertheless, Jessica Chastain’s strong performance remains as the compelling center of the movie, and that reminds me again of what a fantastic actress she has been since her breakout turns in “The Tree of Life” (2011), “The Help” (2011), and “Take Shelter” (2011). As she previously did in “Miss Sloane” (2016), Chastain imbues her character with intensity and intelligence, and she also dexterously handles her many lengthy dialogue scenes without missing any beat. Right from the opening scene, she holds our attention with her fast-talking narration, and that is just the beginning of how she keeps impressing us throughout the film.
Despite its few glaring flaws, “Molly’s Game” is a solid work on the whole thanks to Sorkin’s competent job as its director/writer and Chastain’s commanding lead performance. Although it is a little overlong, its narrative pacing is mostly maintained well during its 140-minute running time, and I was entertained enough even though I noticed its weak points during my viewing. It could be better, but it is still good enough for recommendation at least.