Review: Molly’s Game ★★★

by Michael Henley

Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game is a solid piece of pure entertainment, and as long as you don’t go in expecting much more than that, you’ll be a-ok. It’s based on the true story of Molly Bloom, who ran successful high-stakes poker games on two coasts of the U.S.—successful, that is, until the feds shut her down due to the fact that she had unknowingly welcomed Russian Mafiosi to her tables (the government was doubtful on the “unknowingly” part). The movie has no solemn pretensions, no grandiose ambitions, no tiresome typically-Oscar-season hopes other than to be a tight story, well-told. For the most part, it is.

Sorkin, a well-accomplished screenwriter (The Social Network, The West Wing, A Few Good Men) moves behind the camera here for the first time (though still working from his own script) and delivers a polished and thrilling piece of work that avoids the clichés of biopic but indulges his own well-observed proclivities for smart people talking fast and acting faster. There are bits of backstory sprinkled throughout his densely-structured script, but make no mistake—for the most part, Sorkin’s screenplay prefers the notion that action is character, and his direction follows suit.

And with star Jessica Chastain, Sorkin has found not just a strong vessel for his dialogue but also his best attempt at writing a multi-layered female character since The West Wing’s CJ Craig. Chastain’s Molly is flinty and driven, a sidelined former Olympic skier, now making ends meet as an overburdened Hollywood assistant for a scuzzball (Jeremy Strong). He, by necessity, brings her in to help run a weekly poker game populated by athletes, movie stars and captains of industry. This is lucrative business, especially for a pretty woman who wears the right clothes and shoes and knows what she’s doing (she brings home $3,000 in tips one random night). When moves are made to muscle her out of her role, she manages to wrest control of the game and upgrade the environs to a penthouse suite, in a move as risky and outrageous as it is calculating and practical. A business major would be proud.

And yes, this is a business—and a squeaky clean one, at first. What keeps Molly’s operation honest is her attention to detail. She doesn’t trade in stolen collateral. Tangential sports bets are done out in the hallway.  There’s no prostitution, no sex for favors, no dirty business of any kind. She doesn’t skim off the pot—that’s called a rake, and it’s illegal. But as she moves from Los Angeles to New York and the machine just keeps moving, she starts having to cut corners. She overextends herself and turns to drugs as uppers. She misses things. She has sympathy for the sad sacks who wander to her tables, and when she extends lines of credit they can’t pay back, she prefers the debts to remain outstanding rather than hire muscle to collect. When she does start raking, it’s as an insurance policy against debt; this is a practical decision but also a foolhardy one—it starts a chain of events that brings both mobsters and eventually the FBI to her door. The feds are only interested in the mob, and that’s the one thing Molly knows nothing about, not that anyone believes her.

Sorkin’s telling of the story is electric in the way it moves. Like a movie like Casino or Goodfellas, it employs narration to educate us on what’s happening, and delights on the pure educational level of showing how these things work. It shows us the high-rollers who are perpetual losers; they come every week because they don’t have many friends and consider their losses a fair payment for the weekly comradery.  It gives us a sense of the ecosystem and how the economics work at the tables, and how Molly can stay in business. It produces a movie star regular visitor to her tables, played by Michael Cera (though not playing himself), who seems to exert almost as much power over the game as Molly, though he would bristle at “almost.” It shows the men who fall in love with Molly, or think they do, because her persona is carefully crafted, an “anti-wife,” she calls herself. And we see the toxic men who rankle at her doing what she does so well; the point, refreshingly not underlined, is that no man would ever bat an eye at another man doing the same things.

The story is told partially in flashback; like Social Network, the screenplay’s structure toggles between present day-scenes (where Molly has to account for herself) and the past (home to the procedural elements). Her lawyer (Idris Elba) is high-priced and worth the money, especially in the way he can burrow into her defenses. Their scenes, which are uncut Sorkinese (zingers, characters talking past each other and then u-turning, detours into grammatical and pop culture references) are some of the most crucial in the way the characters suss each other out, cooperatively raise the stakes and only slowly reveal their cards (much like a…wait for it…)

Sorkinese has toppled some strong actors—it’s very demanding and precious language, and Chastain manages to keep up with it; she satisfyingly gives the impression of a brutally smart woman who is okay with talking fast. But the MVP in the movie might be Elba. This is an actor who has made a meal out of both hard-boiled detective fiction and the grimy street poetry of The Wire, and holds his own in sci-fi blockbusters. But here he plays vulnerable—I’ve never been more cognizant of his slight lisp, which somehow benefits his performance: when speaking his dialogue he sounds like a frustrated man desperate to say something and knowing only one way to say it. Both actors find a way to make the language feel lived-in and real, not arch. This is hard to do.

There are some definite issues. Sorkin is sometimes his own worst enemy and refuses to edit some of his narration, even when it’s painfully unnecessary (Sample scene: after a long conversation where it’s made clear that Molly is going to lose control of the game, over a shot of Chastain making her motivations clear, the narration says “I was going to lose control of the game and needed a plan.”)  And there are third act problems: an ill-timed and unconvincing monologue from Elba, a queasy desire to make Molly a martyr and worthy of sainthood when she really is just a smart businesswoman, and a late scene between Molly and her father (Kevin Costner, solid) that seems reductive to Molly as a person and speaks too desperately to Sorkin’s desire to tie a bow on this story.

These are pretty much small quibbles. The last one is more than that; it illustrates the lessening-but-still-prevalent discomfort Sorkin has with writing complex female characters. Chastain’s strong performance deserves a slightly more refined script. But for the most part, Molly’s Game is terrific fun. It looks great, it moves really well, and it has a penchant for dialogue and irony that feels missing from multiplexes today. It’s a crowd-pleaser of a high order, and while it may not amount to much more than simply pleasing a crowd, I’ll humbly submit that these days that certainly isn’t nothing.