FILM REVIEW: Molly’s Game

Molly’s Game is intriguing. But then again, so is Molly Bloom’s life. Captivating and at times quite unbelievable, the story (narration, exposition, voiceover included), is the real body of the film. Richness is to be found in the words, and it comes as little surprise when you consider that Aaron Sorkin is the one behind them. With The West Wing, The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs all on his writing roster, there’s little doubt that Sorkin can produce dialogue-driven shows and screenplays. A seasoned foray into writing, but, maybe an oddly late first foray into directing, Sorkin delivers on what he knows best, but falls somewhat short on what he doesn’t.

Recapping the life of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), with fact and fiction based mainly on her memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker, Molly’s Game is compelling viewing. I’d avoided googling Miss Bloom prior to watching (I do research these movies I promise), and thanked myself that I did (self-congratulation to be kept at a minimum). It appears everything that most knew about Bloom was tabloid fodder – a party girl, and air head, you know the drill. Turns out, it’s all a bit more complicated than that.

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A former ‘poker princess’, Bloom, at her height, ran some of the most notorious underground gambling nights seen around the world, until, well, she didn’t. As with any game involving high risk, the losses are as big as the wins.

In fact, ‘these violent delights have violent ends’ feels somewhat apt for a large part of Molly Bloom’s life (no more Shakespeare from me). The world of poker is dangerous, addictive, and ends with a gun in the mouth courtesy of some Russian mobsters, and the loss of a few million thanks to the FBI. It doesn’t start that way though. Sorkin is as Sorkin does, and he gives us exposition and flashback in droves.

We learn early on that Bloom started life as a freestyle skier, with the chance to compete at the winter Olympics a firm and, from what it appears, quite realistic dream. A career ending accident, and a pushy Father (a dramatic theme that rears its head throughout), Sorkin gives us the vantage point needed for such a flashy and fast paced film. We need to know about Molly’s ‘failures’ to understand the decisions she makes in the future.

With an unprecedented view back into Molly’s life as well as the present day setting, where she is lawyering up with Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), due to an FBI Investigation, Sorkin displays on screen what you could simply read from Bloom’s book. It may sound convoluted to say so, but, there is not a flashback, nor a simple scene, that isn’t given the voiceover treatment by Chastain. We look back to the moments where she first joins the world of poker, via a coarse Hollywood film producer, who spots Bloom working at a bar and offers her a job as his assistant, but it’s all delivered with Chastain telling us what we can see.

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In one scene we are told, via Chastain, and thus via Sorkin, that Molly began taking note of how the poker games worked, who was who, and how much they bet. This, in its exact replica, is also exposed on screen. One, in any case, sometimes works without the other. Film is an art-form that blends the visual with the written word. Sorkin prefers the latter.

Yet this is not to the detriment of the movie. It still is, for want of a better word, a brilliant slice of dramatic cinema. The interplay between Chastain and Elba is sublime, and pings off the screen in a way you would expect of two actors nailing every role they play. They are helped, of course, by Sorkin’s wit and writing, but it’s hard to see who else could bring the words to life with the same adept vigour as those two.  I always believe that if you can’t imagine any other actor playing the role, then you’ve hit a home run. That is very much the case here.

Chastain, in particular, knows her work well. There are few movies I can think of where she hasn’t delivered. The Help, Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Violent Year, she can transform on screen with the best of them, and does so as Bloom too. More ‘brand’ than woman, Bloom turns herself into who she needs to be in order to succeed. Louboutin’s, a blow out, tight dress and a push up bra, Molly is no fool. She couldn’t be. Takes some brains to do what she did. It all falls down though (the dress always stays on mind, something Miss. Bloom is adamant we know).

Hosting celebrities, business men, and sport stars, in the end, Molly loses everything to the men around her. In a post-Weinstein world, where the boorish and bullying treatment of women by the hands of more powerful men is front page news (about time), Sorkin isn’t as damning as I’d want him to be. He might condemn them, in a roundabout sort of way, but he doesn’t offer concrete conclusions.

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It’s true that he’s never written a female as a lead before, and it’s obvious when you consider that most of the men who take her down are written out of the movie, or simply left in the location we found them. This is true of Player X (Michael Cera). Reportedly based on Tobey Maguire, his flat-out shock that Bloom does not find him attractive, nor wish to sleep with him, turns him onto a path of predictable male resentment. God forbid a woman not desire you. He ‘takes over the game’ in Los Angeles, and Molly flees to New York where she sets up another, but with the Russian mob involved, FBI informants, and a cocktail of drugs all on the table, it’s all about to come a head. I won’t give spoilers, so there’s little finality to be found here. But with the real-life Bloom present at the movie premier, and in touch with Sorkin and Chastain, you can probably give it an educated guess as to how it ends.

If you’re looking for a past-faced drama, then this is it. What it isn’t however, is ground-breaking cinema, nor directing. Sorkin has yet to find his voice there. It has elements of Scorsese, Wolf of Wall Street no doubt, with the slight oddball input of directors such as Mike Nichols, and the transparent brutality, at times, of Fincher. But what it lacks in unique style, it flourishes in the always tricky medium of ‘great writing’. Few can write a scene as well as Sorkin. And whilst he just about gets away with some schmaltz right at the film’s end, it’s still a sophisticated watch.

Helped by the knock out performances of Chastain and Elba, Molly’s Game is worthy of the buzz it’s been getting. A great movie about poker, and about Bloom’s life, it falls just short of being a ‘great movie’ out and out.

4 out of 5

Review by Emily Harrison

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