Molly’s Game, the based on a true story tale of a former competitive skier who later caught the FBI’s eye for running an underground poker game, is a fantastic directorial debut for acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. It is a consistently compelling story with a fascinating protagonist, made even more fascinating by a great performance from Jessica Chastain. This is one of the best movies of the year.
Molly Bloom (two-time Oscar nominee Chastain) is a competitor. Since she was a little girl, her psychologist father, Larry (Kevin Costner, most recently seen last year in Hidden Figures), pushed her to be a great skier. After suffering a terrible injury during Olympic qualifying, Molly’s days as an athlete are over. She takes a couple of part-time jobs to make ends meet. One of those jobs is as an assistant to real estate agent Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong, also onscreen this year in Detroit). One day, Dean tasks her with helping him schedule his weekly poker game and helping out at the event. She gets tipped very generously and her new profession is born. Eventually, she begins running her own game.
The majority of Molly’s Game is told in flashback. At the start of the film, her home is raided by the FBI even though they had already seized her assets two years earlier and she had not run a game since then. The heart of the story becomes her relationship with the lawyer who reluctantly takes her on as a client, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba, best known as Stringer Bell on the great HBO series The Wire). The film goes back and forth between relating her past and showing her and Jaffey trying to salvage her future.
I mentioned at the start of this review that this is the work of writer/director Aaron Sorkin (adapted from Bloom’s 2014 autobiography). Sorkin is known for his language (he won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2011 for The Social Network). His stories tend to be character driven instead of story driven. His characters are usually smart, articulate and very chatty. If the dialogue is not delivered well, his films could be a chore to sit through. In Chastain, he cast the perfect actor for his lead. She comes off as very smart and strong with an inner vulnerability. She delivers her lines with the confidence that was needed for this character. If she did not present herself as though she had everything figured out, her entire business would have crumbled. It is a tremendous performance and it is impossible for me to imagine anyone else being better in the role.
Elba anchors the film as her lawyer. Jaffey is much more interested in the why of Molly than the what. Through him, Sorkin gives viewers the opportunity to find out what makes Molly tick. Jaffey could have turned out to be nothing more than the film’s moral compass, but Sorkin allows him to be far more interesting than that. Elba is an excellent actor who had yet to really get the opportunity to showcase his skills completely on the big-screen. Not anymore. He matches Chastain with a really good supporting performance and helps viewers understand Molly’s mysteries.
They are given additional support from Kevin Costner as Molly’s father, Michael Cera as a famous Hollywood actor (referred to as Player X in the film) who frequents Molly’s poker game, Jeremy Strong as her arrogant and verbally abusive boss and Chris O’Dowd who gets laughs as a drunk who tries to use Molly as a confidant. Not only are they all good, each of those characters get at least one big moment and the actors all take advantage of it. Cera (known for his work in comedies like the Netflix series Arrested Development) is a standout as the cocky Player X, showing some skills I have never seen him use before.
Molly’s Game (133 minutes without the end credits) is an intriguing character study that also doubles as a pretty good popcorn movie. It is smart, tremendously entertaining and features two award caliber performances. It is all the more impressive for also being fast moving and occasionally pretty funny. Aaron Sorkin has done something pretty remarkable in his first directorial effort: he has made a thoughtful, insightful film about a complex, real-life story that is also really fun to watch. Molly’s Game is a great film.
4¾ out of 5
Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom
Idris Elba as Charlie Jaffey
Kevin Costner as Larry Bloom
Michael Cera as Player X
Jeremy Strong as Dean Keith
Chris O’Dowd as Douglas Downey
Brian d’Arcy James as Brad
Bill Camp as Harlan Eustice
Graham Greene as Judge Foxman
Written for the screen and directed by Aaron Sorkin