With an opening sequence that deserves its very own Oscar nomination, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut sets the tone on such a high that the rest of the film feels like it’s playing catch-up. Molly’s Game never does catch up to its first 10 minutes though but it never really has to such is the resilience of Sorkin’s whippet-quick smart dialogue, something he has been known for since his days on TV’s The West Wing. The other ace up Sorkin’s sleeve is his Molly Bloom – the ever-reliable Jessica Chastain.
In those first 10 minutes, we see the rise and fall of Molly’s freestyle skiing career, before she had the underground poker world wrapped around her little finger in Las Vegas and New York. Sorkin’s words roll off Chastain’s tongue at 125km/h narration like she was born speaking them. This is the fifth feature-length book adaptation for Sorkin in a row (from Molly Bloom’s memoir, Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World) and how he picks and chooses what to keep, cut and add from the original source material has turned into such an art-form that there’s no mistake about it, these are Sorkin’s words. From stylistic on-screen drawings painting Molly’s description of the rigorous skiing routines forced on her by a domineering dad (Kevin Costner), to the brilliant editing that inject the pace with a furiously entertaining rush, Sorkin manages to pay homage to most of the major directors he’s worked with in the past.
Once we see how Molly suffered the injury that impeded her skiing career, we jump straight into her arrest as the Poker Princess by the FBI. Indicted for illegal gambling and ties to the mafia, Molly finds her lawyer-in-shining-armour in Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba, still the best British actor when it comes to American accents) who hesitates to represent her at first but then, of course, does – even though she can’t pay his insanely expensive fee. Through flashbacks and voice over, Molly tells Jaffey (and us) the story of how she became so renowned in the poker world. Skipping law-school after her skiing career got doomed, moving up from being a cocktail waitress to being Dean Keath’s (Jeremy Strong) assistant, hosting Keath’s underground poker games, meeting Player X (Michael Cera) and various other adventures with poker degenerates, mafia goons and distant fathers who conveniently re-appear for closure.
Sorkin does a solid job of balancing the past with the present in terms of tone, and the pace of Molly’s Game is so entertaining that it’s worth the price of admission alone. The 140-minute running time sounds hefty, and truth be told the film could do with some trimming, but the whole affairs ends up feeling like one quick 20-minute inhale/exhale exercise. Elba and Chastain’s on-screen chemistry cleverly never translates into anything more than highly professional, but there are exchanges – especially those involving the legal logistics surrounding Molly’s case – told in such spitfire fashion that it becomes easy to lose the plot and start itching for a rewind. It should come with a warning, really: viewing not recommended with people who have a knack for asking questions while watching.
Most of the film ultimately lives and breathes in the poker scenes. Michael Cera does a fantastic job as the douche celebrity actor who loves destroying souls at the tables (fun fact: the real-life Player X is none other than Spider-Man himself, Tobey Maguire) and there’s one poker story featuring the great Bill Camp that will tear your heart out as much as it does Molly’s. The film’s major hurdle, though, lies with the nagging feeling by the end that the true story of Molly Bloom – as fun as it is – doesn’t teach us, or reveal, anything new. She’s a strong, independent woman who relies on pure intelligence, guile and instinct to succeed in a world dominated by men – very much an important and powerful theme in today’s cinema – but beyond that, Molly’s story and persona are not compelling enough to leave a long-lasting effect, or much food for thought. Molly’s Game is supremely entertaining on the surface, the screenplay certainly deserves the Oscar nomination it received, and Chastain adds another remarkably tenacious performance to her résumé; but even poker nuts will have to call bluff on this story truly deserving a big-screen adaptation.
Molly’s Game ***
DIRECTED BY Aaron Sorkin
STARRING Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera
USA 2017 140 mins