Starring Jessica Chastain. Rated PG
Jessica Chastain is a perfect match for Aaron Sorkin, the West Wing–ian master of rapid-fire overlapping dialogue, here making his directorial debut after more than two decades of writing and producing major projects for other people.
On the surface, it’s easy to see why he would want to tell the fact-based tale of a woman sharp enough to run her own high-stakes poker games in Los Angeles and New York. How high? Let’s just say that guys (always guys) like Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio would pay 250K a pop just to sit at the green-felt table, with beautiful waitresses handing them free Rémy. The real-life Molly Bloom, played here by Chastain, wrote a book about her years in the bigs, changing most of the names. But that wasn’t enough to keep the FBI (back when they weren’t liberal commies like they are now) off her tail for “raking” money for her games—the part that makes them illegal—and for covering for Russian mobsters (back before they became good guys). Consequently, the film is divided into several time frames, covering her upward climb in the world of poker, and her attempts to stave off the feds, via high-priced lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba, going Yank again); he’s intrigued by her case, despite the fact that all her money has been frozen. There’s also a back story about her youthful rise as an Olympic ski hopeful, pushed forth and emotionally hindered by a stage father (Kevin Costner) who doesn’t know when to quit, even when injuries say otherwise. (In that regard, Molly’s Game is like an upper-class version of I, Tonya, coincidentally opening this week.)
What ties together all these time codes and settings (mostly Ontario, despite what’s said) is the most relentless voice-over narration since Goodfellas, which it also resembles thematically. Like that Scorsese gangland tale, it doesn’t really say that much about society, preferring to dwell in the nether reaches of smoke-filled rooms where the powerful make their own rules and crack wise. Hollywood sharkiness is represented by Michael Cera, of all people, whom she calls Player X; he enjoys winning mostly “for the pleasure of destroying other people’s lives”.
The good news is that most of that narration, and the dialogue, is pretty crackling stuff. Still, at 140 minutes, this Game feels padded out with side issues about drugs, depositions, and Daddy. (There’s a bookending face-off with Costner that feels more contractually obligated than organic.) At the same time, Molly has no friends, lovers, or other interests, so all we know for sure is that she’s one hell of a hostess. But does she have the mostest?