Every time I go into a theater or turn on a TV that has a script written by Aaron Sorkin, I’m convinced this is the time he will run out of words. That trading his soul for the talent to write unending, spectacular dialogue will have finally run out. Well, I’m happy to report whatever it is that supplies the words is alive and well. And I was just kidding about that deal with the devil thing. Mr. Sorkin has not only written the script, he makes his directing debut at the encouragement of his producers. No surprise, his directing mirrors his writing style; frenetic.
Molly’s Game is based on the true story of Molly Bloom (book with the same title) played by the always strong Jessica Chastain. She is a highly competitive skier and sharp as a tack from Colorado. Her father, Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner) a university professor, was uber-focused ensuring his kids were overachievers in academics as well as sports. Molly’s two brothers were at the very top of most everything they tried. A a million to one freak accident derailed her from a final run bid to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in the freestyle.
The skiing injury caused her to take a step back from her a law school goal and instead took a year off to live in Los Angeles. A waitress job helps her along until she meets Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) who hires her to be his assistant. The job pays horribly and the hours are 24/7, essentially doing anything Dean wants or needs. Pick-up dry cleaning, buying bagels and oh yes, being the punching bag for his faltering business.
Dean is starting up a weekly high stakes poker game and tells Molly that she is now going to help run that as well. The players are famous movie stars with a buy-in of ten grand and the blinds (forced bets) are fifty/one hundred. You learn a lot about poker watching this movie. Molly sends an invite email to all the names scribbled on the pad and everyone replies within minutes that they’re in.
With a poker game you might expect the occasional quite screen time as players size each other up looking for a tell. If you’ve watched Poker on cable you know it’s a bunch of guys sitting around a table, inside, wearing sunglasses. But this is Sorkin. There are some moments of brief pause, but we have lots of cuts and constant dialogue or Molly’s voice-over. It keeps you on your toes. Words come flying out of actors’ mouths in a constant stream. If you’re not listening to every word you miss a lot. It almost seems too perfect.
Mr. Sorkin cleverly conceals all the famous people’s identities by giving them screen names like Player 1, Player 2, and Player X (a quiet but chilling Michael Cera), who turns out to be the sharpest player in the room as well as the most dangerous to Molly.
Ms. Chastain was a great casting choice. She is strong, but has a vulnerable side, and she brings both to bear with great effectiveness. There is no doubt that she relished this part.
Carefully observing all the details of the game, listening for the tribal poker keywords and Googling them gets her up to speed quickly. She invests in a new, sexy wardrobe and hairstyles. When things get slow at the table, she brings in new fish. A fish is a new player to the game who has money, plays loose and is good, but not too good.
Mr. Sorkin shuffles the scene order, cutting from the main story line of Molly in game mode to her in court mode. The feds have arrested her and drained her bank accounts. She needs a lawyer and finds her man in Charlie Jaffey. Idris Elba plays Jaffey with just the right dose of seriousness and humor. I can’t help but feel that he reminds Molly of her father after a discussion with his middle-school daughter related to academic expectations. During the client/lawyer discussions he sees lots of red flags but is fascinated with the case as well as Molly’s strong personality and ethics.
Dean’s business is not doing well and he is no longer winning at the table. In a conversation with Molly he informs her to no longer expect a salary for her day job. The money she gets from the game is enough. Molly is not pleased and goes into action to set up her own game.
Soon he fires her, which is the worst thing he could have done. Molly hands over the game to the new girl hired to replace here. The transition consists of texting random phone numbers instead of the real player’s numbers. She then contacts the regulars and tells them the game has moved to a luxury hotel, but doesn’t tell Dean.
The film takes a fateful turn when Molly is forced out of L.A. in a dirty-handed move by Player X and chooses to start over again, this time in New York. She is a full-on pro at this, but just like the players she becomes addicted; but for her it’s drugs to stay awake and sharp. The longer she stays in, the deeper she sinks into a dark place with some very nasty people.
Eventually she has to face federal prosecutors who want her to cooperate in exchange for leniency. Her father (Kevin Costner) has been following her exploits and catches up to her with the hopes of reconciling, at least partly, for their falling out. A deep discussion between them reveals a lot about their relationship and some of Molly’s choices.
I think it was an inspired choice to select Charlotte Bruus Christensen as the cinematographer (Fences, The Girl on the Train). A woman photographing a woman results in a different feel than we would get from a man behind the camera. Angles, lenses, lighting and other subtle choices.
Molly and Jaffey are the primary players, but a lot of time is spent developing the secondary and even the background players, each doing their part to tell this complicated and fascinating story.
Top production values all around and of course that crisp Sorkin dialogue. It clocks in at 140 minutes just making it under the contractual limit. Yes Sorkin likes them long and I’ll bet there was a lot left on the cutting room floor.
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Images courtesy STX Entertainment