STX FILMS (2018)
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Brian d’Arcy James
Dealing himself into the directors game, Aaron Sorkin’s debut feature, Molly’s Game, is a stylish adaptation of the pithily titled 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 memoir of top-class skier turned poker princess, Molly Bloom. After creating a poker empire, the FBI shut her down and stripped her of everything. It’s a tales of riches to rags.
After suffering a horrific accident at a national skiing contest, Molly Bloom (Chastain) gives up her Olympic dreams (and oppressive father Larry (Costner)) and moves to Los Angeles. While working as a cocktail waitress she meets egotistical real estate agent Dean (Jeremy Strong), and agrees to become his assistant through shady coercion.
Her responsibilities included setting up his lucrative weekly poker games, involving some of the biggest hitters in Hollywood, and keeping close tabs on the money and the tactics. Having covertly picked up the intricacies of the game, she cuts Dean loose and begins hosting huge stake matches in Los Angeles and New York. As her own personal fortune increases so too do the attention of the IRS, FBI and the mob towards her and her game. Years later, the ‘poker princess's’ empire begins to crumble and ace lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Elba) is her only ally.
Modishly made, and with the undeniable shadow of Scorsese with fleeting echoes of American Hustle, Molly’s Game feels ‘cool’ throughout. From the high stakes poker games in exclusive hotel suites to the bustling streets of LA and New York, everything feels high-class. Woven in with the style are present-day scenes set in lawyer’s offices (albeit contemporary ones) and stuffy courtrooms as the narrative jumps between past and present. The transitions are handled via narration – fast-paced, exposition-heavy voiceovers that quickly lose their novel the more they become required. With a runtime of 140 minutes, that’s a lot of time to fill and Molly’s Game doesn’t always fill it particularly well. The movie feels overly long in the second act, and the poker games become dull after each initially being entertaining. Sorkin takes his time getting from beat to beat, which is never a bad thing but at times it all feels a bit stretched.
Jessica Chastain owns the show with a strong, sassy and excellent lead performance. Her presence (and costume choices) gives her great on-screen presence and she anchors the movie very well. Idris Elba too is very good at the no-nonsense lawyer tasked with softening Molly’s fall, even if he can’t quite decide on which accent to use. The supporting band provides a varied ensemble performance, with Michael Cera and Bill Camp both strong in their roles.
Where the characters suffer is in the writing, which is ironic given Sorkin’s magical touch in this area. It’s not necessarily bad writing, it’s just boggy and at times uninteresting. Idris Elba gets arguably the best lines and a great monologue to fire off towards the end. The courtroom scenes are quickly glossed over towards the end and the third act seems to derail Molly’s character entirely – a strong, powerful woman has to rely on the men around her to basically survive – her father, her lawyer, the judge etc. If the first third of the movie is the highlight, the second is decent but the third only has moments of excellence and ends up as the weakest part. The performances manage to elevate the characters above any shortcomings, thankfully. There are some great lines and moments during the movie, obviously, small moments of humour or inspiration provide flourishes throughout.
The movie looks great, as mentioned, and it’s not just the glittering locations and costumes. The poker games are filmed with an energy that belies the actual game, and the techniques involved to ensure the audience remains engaged are well-executed. They do lose their zest eventually, but when they work, they work well.
The performances in Molly’s Game are undoubtedly the highlight of the movie, Chastain and Elba specifically. There’s a lot to enjoy visually and at times, the poker games can be enthralling, though the movie can’t maintain these moments consistently and falters at times as a result. More entertaining than not, however, Molly’s Game is a decent movie with flashes of excellence.
Deal me in. Just about.
January 17th 2018