By her twentieth birthday, Molly Bloom had a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Colorado University, having graduated Summa Cum Laude with a 3.9 GPA. Her LSAT score was several points higher than the average accepted at Harvard’s Law, and she was ranked 3rd in North America in Women’s Moguls (winter skiing). However, her dreams of Olympic glory took a down turn when her skiing shoes clipped a small pine branch that had frozen to the surface during the qualifiers for Utah’s Winter Olympics, bringing her skiing career to a halt.
Molly decided to take a sabbatical year before attending law school and moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a waitress and found a job as an office assistant that would alter her life forever. For her new boss at the office ran a very exclusive poker game—attended by ten or twenty of the most influential people in the world, among which were movie stars, directors, rappers, and business titans—, which she helped him organize and run for three years before he fired her. Knowing everything there was to know about the game by that point, Molly organized a game of her own, stealing some of the other game’s players, which she ran for another five years until it was taken from her in a blink by a movie star identified only as “Player X”.
Once again, Molly started a game of her own—this time in New York City, no movie stars allowed—, which became the most exclusive underground poker game in the world until it was brought dramatically to a halt by the FBI because of Russian mobsters involvement. Apparently, Molly did not know that some of her players were members of a crime syndicate. That sting brought Molly to the attention of FBI authorities, who indicted her, together with another 31 people, two years later for breaking federal laws.
With a running time of 140 minutes, Molly’s Game is an ambitious, piercing look at the underworld of high stakes poker, written by Aaron Sorkin—whose writing credits include A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Moneyball, Charlie Wilson’s War, and Steve Jobs—, adapted from Molly Bloom’s memoir, and also directed by Aaron Sorkin in his directorial debut; starring Jessica Chastain (Molly Bloom), Idris Elba (Charley Jaffey, Molly’s criminal defense attorney), Kevin Costner (Larry Bloom, Molly’s father), Jeremy Strong (Dean Keith, Molly’s first boss), Michael Cera (“Player X”), Chris O’Dowd (Douglas Downey), Bill Camp (Harlan Eustice), and Graham Greene (Judge Foxman).
Molly’s Game is an eclectic visual concoction integrating high stakes competitive skiing, high stakes poker—occasionally explaining complex poker strategies on screen—, and legal drama, in one tightly edited package that makes, at times, for a hallucinatory experience—music included—you can’t take your eyes off of. Add to those elements alluring personalities, fast action—some repetitive scenes show how one game eventually started to become indistinguishable from another—, a fast clip voice-over, and a non-linear narrative that dare you to keep up and keep you on the edge of your seat.
Molly’s Game’s screenplay is the best of Aaron Sorkin thus far. I was not a fan of The Social Network—more for the apparent shady dealings of its protagonist than for the screenplay, though it took all my attention to understand the dialogues as they occurred in rapid bursts—but Molly’s Game rivals the edge, intensity, and brilliance of Steve Jobs, as do the remarkable performances. It helps that it was Sorkin who directed the movie, as he probably had an idea of how to translate best the story from paper to screen.
In my opinion, there are four no-fail actresses in Hollywood at present that deliver powerhouse performances at every turn, namely, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, and Michelle Williams. In that order. Jessica Chastain has become one of those actresses that, despite having been consistently snubbed by the Academy Awards in the last two years, has not failed to deliver flawed, female heroines that are award-worthy. Think of her turns in The Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt, Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Violent Year, Interstellar, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (Her, Him, Them), The Martian (See Snapshots - #7), Crimson Peak, and The Zookeeper’s Wife. The odd ones out being Miss Julie and The Huntsman: Winter’s War.
Jessica Chastain has become outstanding at portraying overachieving alpha females in high stakes situations; such was the case in Miss Sloane and now Molly’s Game. Chastain’s Molly is the leader of the pack, both in the academic world that she left behind when she decided to take a sabbatical year after she failed the qualifiers for Utah’s Winter Olympics, and a world populated by powerful businessmen and world-class celebrities, in which she had a stint for 12 year as the runner of the most famous and successful underground poker game in the world. To say that Chastain was alluring as Molly is an understatement. She was smart, calculating, and played the game of power to a T. It doesn’t hurt that Chastain was covered in gorgeous jewels and aided by marvelous makeup and wardrove departments that made her become, in the words of her attorney, “the Cinemax version of herself.”
If Jessica Chastain was brilliant in the role of Molly Bloom, equally career-defining were the acting turns by Kevin Costner as Larry Bloom, Molly’s clinical psychologist father, and Idris Elba as Charley Jaffey, Molly’s criminal defense attorney.
Kevin Costner was spot on as a demanding father, always at odds with Molly—the reasons become clear towards the end of the story. The scene when Larry gives Molly “three years of therapy in three minutes”, providing answers to the reasons for their estrangement and for why she ran a high stakes card game surrounded by powerful men, was very emotionally charged and Kevin Costner at his finest.
Idris Elba showed his powerhouse status of an actor, holding his own with Jessica Chastain, especially in two scenes: during an informal deposition, arguing with the prosecutor on Molly’s behalf. He convincingly argued why Molly Bloom did not belong in the same indictment with dirty moguls and Russian mobsters. Elba also showed his mettle arguing against Molly’s request to let her plead guilty because her good name was the only thing she had left.
In my opinion, the overall winner with this biopic is Molly Bloom herself, as the movie redeems her somewhat and clarifies her motivations for revealing certain names in her memoir and not disclosing others. As it turns out, those names had been previously disclosed by Brad Marion, a.k.a. “Bad Brad”, in his own indictment for a Ponzi scheme he had been running with money extracted from the people he had played poker with at Molly’s game.