|Original caricature by Jeff York of Jessica Chastain in MOLLY’S GAME (copyright 2017)|
There’s something about the danger of cards and casinos and the Mob that almost always makes for compelling cinema. Whether it’s Michael Corleone not seeing eye-to-eye with Moe Green on how to run a casino in THE GODFATHER or James Bond playing cards against a terrorist in CASINO ROYALE, such stories snap, crackle and pop. Lauded screenwriter Aaron Sorkin chose that world as the backdrop for his directorial debut and the result is MOLLY’S GAME. It’s an utterly enthralling piece, from its first second to the last of its two hours and 20 minutes.
Sorkin adapted the biography by Molly Bloom, the woman who ran the world’s most exclusive high stakes poker game for many years and ended up a target of the FBI. Entitled Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker, that title sure is a mouthful. So is this movie, what with its long, complex story about the over-achieving young Olympic hopeful who went from skier to illegal gambling den entrepreneur to multimillionaire to government stoolie, all before she was 40. It’s the perfect kind of story for Sorkin to write and shoot, as it comes with themes of morality, dissertations on power, and crackling dialogue is spoken by clever characters, three trademarks of his work. It’s also a film about the difficulties of a woman succeeding in a world dominated by men, perfect for our #TimesUp era.
Like his previous biopics THE SOCIAL NETWORK, MONEYBALL, and STEVE JOBS, Sorkin creates a complex central character, one that can often repel as much as attract. He serves up Molly as a woman who is both steely and vulnerable, savvy as hell, yet sometimes painfully naïve. To succeed as she did, Molly (Jessica Chastain, in a crackerjack performance) had to be as ballsy as any man, yet she was never hesitant to showcase her feminine assets in tight, form-fitting clothes if it meant disarming some of the tougher cookies who crossed her path.
Most of her players were celebs, famous athletes, and titans of business. All were men and she was incredibly shrewd at sizing them up. She knew exactly what side of her personality to present to them to keep them coming back and handing her their money. With some, she was all business, talking math and strategy. With others, she flirted to coax them away from competitive dens run by men. And to win over the basket cases, she played up the mothering aspects of her personality. Figuring out how to play them was her true game.
One of the most interesting parts of the movie is how Sorkin has costumer Susan Lyell dress Molly. At times her clingy ensembles, bursting cleavage, and three-inch heels border on porn star garb at the AVN Awards, but that is how she had to dress to win over the Neanderthals parading through her place. These oafs would eventually come to respect her professionalism and fairness, but Molly always had to add some eye candy to seal the deal. Seeing a smart character like Molly, let alone a savvy actress like Chastain, wearing such over-the-top garb makes for one of the film’s more richly comic tropes. Molly caricatures her femininity to appeal to the basest he-man instincts of these nincompoops, themselves cartoon versions of men in far too many ways. Chastain even wears her hair dark throughout most of the film to add to the femme fatale fantasy men could buy into more easily.
Sorkin’s script jumps around a lot in time and space, but the newbie director’s camera keeps up with all his shifts in the story. There are a ton of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and retracing steps to add new meaning to certain scenes, but Sorkin the director gives it all a Martin Scorsese style energy and verve. Still, at other times, Sorkin is content to let his camera just sit there and bask in the witty banter that Chastain and Idris Elba as her lawyer engage in while plotting the strategy to get her out of hot water with the Feds. He is one of only two admirable male characters onscreen. The other is Molly’s father, played by Kevin Costner.
Costner is terrific in his supporting role here too, adding a fun crustiness and moral rigidity to her father’s character. (Does anyone play crusty and rigid better than Costner these days?) There are also clever turns from Chris O’Dowd, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Brian d’Arcy James and Bill Camp as the various gamblers who are part of Molly’s world. But this is all Chastain’s show in the end. She plays Molly with all the strength and tenacity you’d expect, but she’s soft here too, more vulnerable onscreen than she has been since THE HELP. It is truly one of 2017’s greatest performances.
MOLLY’S GAME is a fun ride, one definitely more of the rollercoaster variety. Her ups and downs are sometimes funny, sometimes harrowing, but always fascinating. It takes a special type of courage to tread on such dangerous terrain, but Molly liked the rush and the danger. You’ll like the rush too, albeit without the danger as you watch from the comfort of your seat in the cineplex.