Release Date: December 25, 2017 (limited); January 5, 2018 (wide)
Runtime: 140 minutes
Studio: STX Entertainment
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Jessica Chastain; Idris Elba; Michael Cera; Kevin Costner; Jeremy Strong; Chris O’Dowd; Graham Greene; Brian d’Arcy James
Aaron Sorkin, Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba make a glorious threesome in “Molly’s Game,” a busy, but entertaining true story based upon the “real life is stranger than fiction” saga of Molly Bloom.
Heretofore a screenwriter, Sorkin translates his trademark rapid-fire wordplay to the director’s chair and the result is a whip-smart, fast-moving (although some dude in the front row of my screening was loudly snoring) ride through the world of underground poker games. Jessica Chastain proves an inspired choice to play Molly Bloom, a good girl former Olympic skier who, after a devastating fall in competition on the slopes, finds herself seeking solace in LA. Needing work, she accepts a job as assistant to shady hedge-funder, Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) who, on the side, runs an underground poker club frequented by the usual assortment of Hollywood moneyed types (though none of the real life celebrities are named in the film, whether by choice or by legal interference, it hardly matters). Molly is an opportunistic and driven woman, and when she is unceremoniously fired by Keith, she seizes upon the opportunity to start her own poker club, stealing the players from her former boss and creating a much more high-class, high-stakes event. As opposed to holding the games in a cheapo bar on the Sunset Strip, Molly hosts her games in a luxurious hotel suite, staffed by models, and even has Mr. Chow catering the buffet table. In no time at all, Molly’s game night is the go-to poker club for high-rolling men with a lot (I repeat…a LOT) of money to play with. Her operation is moved to New York City after a former player betrays her, and an even more luxurious and successful club takes shape. Molly has clients participating in her game from all over the world and more than one drunken lout professes his love for her. But Molly is smart: she runs the club legally, even paying taxes on her income, and acts as a combination host/confidant/therapist for the sometimes in-over-their-heads guys participating in her games. Of course, the good times can’t roll forever and her empire eventually comes crashing down around her.
Chastain is perfect in this role: she exudes a certain confidence and intelligence that makes it easy to see why Molly was so successful. Molly uses her beauty and style to a certain extent, but her eyes are firmly focused on the take, as she is seen continually keeping an eye on the books and the players alike. I was reminded of the same bad-assness Chastain brought to “Zero Dark Thirty” and a similar charisma is evident here. She delivers Sorkin’s dialogue (sometimes extraordinarily detailed that may turn off some viewers, no matter how he tries to break it down) with ease and purpose. Chastain has never been better or more fun to watch (it also helps that she is breathtakingly gorgeous in some of the outfits costume designer Susan Lyall provides for her). Idris Elba brings the same confidence to his role as Charlie Jaffey, Molly’s defense attorney. He and Chastain have a nice chemistry that is crucial to the effectiveness not only of the plot, but also of the film as a whole. Sorkin writes the two of them some nice sparring dialogue that allows the two actors ample opportunities to play off of each other beautifully. Secondary characters, including Michael Cera in a role that is, for once, not a dork, and Kevin Costner as Molly’s father, all lend strong support, affording the film an unexpected ensemble feel.
As good as Chastain, Elba, and the rest of the cast are, this is Sorkin’s show. His screenplay is smart – almost too smart, as most of his works tend to be – and fanatically detailed in its depiction of the poker games (he even utilizes some on-screen graphics at times to illustrate for the laypeople in the audience the nuances of the game). It’s always fun to watch a debuting director nail it out of the gate and Sorkin has definitely been paying attention to some of the seasoned pros he’s worked with (David Fincher, Danny Boyle, to name a few). His directing is thankfully devoid of screen indulgences like flashy effects and camera tricks that a first-time feature director might be tempted to indulge in. “Molly’s Game” is slick, tightly filmed and intelligently written. I just wish I knew how to play poker.