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Molly’s Game (2017)

DIRECTOR: Aaron Sorkin

CAST: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong

REVIEW:

Molly’s Game, the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, the critically-acclaimed screenwriter of such films as The Social Network and Steve Jobs, tells the true story (with every name changed except the title character’s) of the so-called “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom (adapted from her own memoirs).  Those familiar with a Sorkin movie will recognize they’re in one straight from the get-go, with the restless pace and rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, but while with plenty of interesting scenes and solid performances, Mollys Game suffers from an overlong and overstuffed narrative structure and lacks the relentless taut intensity of Steve Jobs.  Sorkin fans may still find much to appreciate, but it’s not one of his strongest offerings.

We jump between several time periods mostly spanning approximately 2003-2013 (with a few flashbacks to Molly’s teens, where she is played by Samantha Isler).  Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) grows up in a household with high academic and athletic standards, with brothers who grow up to become Olympic athletes and surgeons, and driven by her demanding father (Kevin Costner), a perfectionist psychiatrist, she becomes a promising professional skier and seems to have a shot at Olympic gold before a freak accident puts her out of the running.  Following her recovery, Molly puts off law school and heads to Los Angeles, where she gets a job as a waitress at a Hollywood nightclub.  This gets her a thankless job as the personal secretary of an abrasive wannabe real estate mogul (Jeremy Strong), but also gets her enough access to important people that, largely through chance encounters, she winds up running high-stakes poker games for people with deep pockets, with an exclusive invitation-only clientele including movie stars, sports stars, and business moguls.  Things run smoothly enough, with Molly pocketing hundreds of thousands in tips, until she eventually runs afoul of “Player X” (Michael Cera), a great poker player and an entitled movie star who shuts her down when she refuses his expectations of preferential treatment, forcing her to relocate to New York City.  There, instead of catering to the rich and famous, Molly opens up her games to anyone with the money, which has her obliviously rubbing elbows with the Russian mob and the American Mafia and gets her club raided by the FBI.  Meanwhile, she slips into drug addiction.  Two years after her poker empire has collapsed, broke, named in a mob indictment, and facing possible prison time, Molly pleads for help from lawyer Charlie Jaffrey (Idris Elba), who reluctantly decides to help.

Chronologically, we kick things off with a cold open with Molly awoken in the middle of the night to find flashlights and automatic weapons staring her in the face and subsequently throwing herself on Jaffrey’s mercy, before skipping back through a tangled timeline to sketch out how she got to this point.  The convoluted narrative structure is part of the problem.  Another is that Sorkin, seemingly determined to cover every aspect of Bloom’s memoirs, barrages us with so much information in typical rapid-fire Sorkin style that at times it’s hard to process (especially when Molly gives rapid-fire explanations of poker rules and lingo).  Like Steve Jobs, the movie frequently employs innovative techniques (competing player’s poker scorecards flashing on the screen and other flourishes) to add visual flair to what could have been dry proceedings, but the movie’s excessive information dumps and excessive runtime (nearly two and a half hours) drags down the pacing that was the strength of Steve Jobs.  That film took a subject—the founder and CEO of Apple Inc.—which on paper could have been dry and dull, and enlivened it into a compelling character study with relentless rat-a-tat-tat pacing that lended a driving tension and immediacy.  Molly’s Game doesn’t achieve the same effect, or at least doesn’t maintain it in more than fits and starts.  After a while, the flashbacks start to feel interminable and laborious, and the film could have benefitted from a tighter cut.  A couple forceful monologues and a cathartic conversation between Molly and her father bring things to a stronger finish, but it takes a long meandering route to get there.  Expectedly, Sorkin serves up plenty of snappy one-liners and a couple fiery monologues and puts them in the mouths of actors like Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba who can deliver them with relish.  Some may remain skeptical of Molly’s claims to obliviousness that she was rubbing elbows with the Russian mob, and unsurprisingly considering it’s an adaptation of her own memoirs, the movie presents her as ambitious and in some ways manipulative but mostly an innocent bystander, at least when it comes to the more serious crimes she was peripherally implicated in.  Apart from Molly, all names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent (anyone who’s skimmed Molly’s memoirs, for example, knows that Michael Cera’s skilled but bratty “Player X” is so-called to veil an unflattering portrayal of actor Tobey Maguire).

The most engaging sequences in the movie end up being not the poker game contests, but the “present day” scenes between Molly and Jaffrey.  This is arguably the most formulaic part of the movie—the no-nonsense attorney who grudgingly gets invested in his troubled client—but strong acting, strong chemistry, and strong dialogue give their scenes a snap that the rest of the movie doesn’t always have.  Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba have strong give-and-take chemistry (of the platonic, sometimes headbutting variety), and we get invested in their back-and-forth interplay.  In fact, at times we get bored with the interminable flashbacks because we want to get back to Molly and Jaffrey.  Chastain spits out some of Molly’s acerbic asides with zeal, and Elba gets a forceful monologue late in the film that’s tailor-made for a “for your consideration” Oscar nomination clip (after being mostly wasted in some high-profile movies like Prometheus, Star Trek Beyond, and the Thor series, maybe this will finally get him some more recognition).  Kevin Costner stays mostly in the background as Molly’s cold, demanding father, until an emotionally cathartic conversation late in the movie.  Smaller roles include Michael Cera as “Player X” (aka a veiled Tobey Maguire), Jeremy Strong as Molly’s abrasive LA boss, Bill Camp, Chris O’Dowd, Brian d’Arcy James, Jon Bass, and Stranger Things’ Joe Keery among the poker players, and Graham Greene as Molly’s judge.

At the bottom line, Molly’s Game is immediately recognizable as an Aaron Sorkin movie, and bears all the hallmarks, but somewhat disappointingly lacks the relentless drive of Steve Jobs, and an overlong and unwieldy narrative structure defuses the tension.  Sorkin fans may still find much to appreciate in a movie chock-full of distinctive Sorkin dialogue and actors good enough to deliver it well, but while sporadically compelling, it’s not one of his stronger works.

* * 1/2

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