If nothing else, your poker movie needs will be met with Molly’s Game. Jessica Chastain stars as the real-life Molly Bloom, who started out as an Olympic-bound skier and all-around overachiever (high LSAT scores, headed for law school), at the constant prodding of her psychologist father, played by Kevin Costner. Through persistent, relentless voiceover, Molly takes us through the career-ending injury during her Olympic qualifying run (an errant tree branch—it’s always something). After that, she leaves behind Colorado for Los Angeles, where she becomes personal assistant to a rich Hollywood brat, which leads to running a high stakes underground poker game, money, money, money, a fall from grace, a book deal and—phew!—a third-act movie trial with smooth-talking Idris Elba as lead council.
Aaron Sorkin wrote the picture, and it’s his directorial debut to boot. This is the man behind The Social Network, The West Wing, A Few Good Men and countless other snappy hits that are so consistently good that after awhile, we somehow can’t help but become exasperated and roll our eyes at them. Nobody’s that clever, is the consistent complaint behind Sorkin’s dialogue, and it’s true. But in a cultural wasteland full of dumbed-down dialogue, I’d rather not fault the guy for being too smart. The gears in Molly’s Game turned less conspicuously for me than some other Sorkin scripts (remember Steve Jobs? Woof).
The movie’s at its best as it leads us through the genesis and evolution of Molly’s underground poker playing empire. She starts off small, assisting her toolbox of a boss by running his Tuesday night poker game. She keeps track of the players’ banks in a responsible spreadsheet and doles out their chips in increasingly prettier cocktail dresses as her tips grow larger. Before long, her boss notices that she’s making a healthy living and tells her he’s not going to pay her weekly wage anymore. Are you familiar with this trick? Men have a kind of intrinsic baseline with regard to just how much money women should be allowed to make. If you think the phenomenon isn’t gendered, you’re wrong, and I appreciated the subtle but poignant ways the film illustrates the sexism that Molly encounters and the clever ways she overcomes them.
Before long, Molly snatches the game out from under her boss, runs it at a nicer venue with better snacks and attracts increasingly swankier players. These include famous business tycoons, athletes and actors who are never explicitly named, but one of them (played mercilessly by Michael Cera) is very probably supposed to be Tobey Maguire. As I’ve said, the poker talk is fun, and Chastain’s turn as a formidable woman who finds herself in over her head in a world fueled by testosterone and amphetamines never falters. But I can’t tell if I have any objectivity left; she’s so smart and pretty, it seems that I lose my mind watching her no matter what role she embodies.
Overall, Molly’s Game marks a solid enough directorial debut for Sorkin. Others have complained that at two hours 20 minutes, he’s given us too much movie, but I thought the story moved with a lot of speed. I’d rather complain about the too-precious treatment of its characters. Molly is a hero with a heart of gold until the very end. She’s a goddamn genius, impossibly graceful, self-conscious of her flaws, but ultimately morally scrupulous to a fault. It’s a dull thesis to end on in what is otherwise a fun poker movie to return to years from now, when we grow bored once again of Rounders.
Molly’s Game opens at the Missoula AMC Fri., Jan 5.