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Sunday, January 07, 2018

Molly's Game

For years, Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Moneyball) has been famous for not just his airtight dialogue, but also for the way it's delivered.  He seems to be able to put out more information and more character development in a single scene than some screenwriters can fit into half a movie at times.  His directorial debut, Molly's Game, is pretty much a showcase for his rapid-fire dialogue, as well as the kinetic energy that frequently accompany it.  At nearly two and a half hours, it does go on a bit long, but there is no denying the skill and enthusiasm of his writing.

Molly's Game is pretty much all information and dialogue, and the way that it is delivered by its first-rate cast can sometimes feel like it's being delivered at a mile a minute.  There were even a couple times when I wanted the movie to slow down a little, as Sorkin seems to be throwing out one detail after another.  The movie's narrative also jumps around to different time points, so it can be a little hard to follow at certain moments.  Despite all this, there is enough stuff that works here to keep you ensnared by the true story (with names changed, except for the main character) of Molly Bloom, the infamous "Poker Princess" who made a fortune holding illegal gambling games with the rich and powerful, and Hollywood celebrities.  With a strong performance by Jessica Chastain as Molly, as well as an equally noteworthy supporting turn from Idris Elba (who gets to end 2017 on a good note after appearing in back-to-back disappointments The Dark Tower and The Mountain Between Us), as well as Sorkin's trademark style and humor, Molly's Game may be flawed, but it's still well worth watching.

As the movie opens, we learn that Molly Bloom was at one time on the path to the Winter Olympics, performing on the ski team, and being driven by her demanding and perfectionist father, Larry (Kevin Costner, very good in a small role).  A mishap on the ski slope during the qualifying run ended that dream, and Molly headed to California a year later in order to get away from her family and to just figure out what she wanted to do with her life. (She had been building a path to law school, but Molly was burned out on that as well.) Molly has no money when she comes to L.A., and is sleeping on a friend's couch, when she happens to get involved in the world of underground high stakes poker due to a man she met while working as a waitress at a cocktail bar.  The poker games are filled with media moguls and celebrities playing for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even though Molly doesn't understand the game at first, she is a quick learner as she watches the game being played, and keeps track of everyone's money while they play, recording their amounts into a spreadsheet. 

Molly quickly learns how to set up her own game in a posh hotel suite, and before long, the biggest and brightest names in Hollywood are playing at her table.  Again, all the names except for Molly's has been changed, so we never find out who these people actually were.  One player at Molly's table is a young actor described only as "Player X" (Michael Cera, in a rare dramatic turn), who apparently was one of the biggest young actors at the time, but he ended up destroying Molly's reputation after she turns him down when he asks for preferential treatment.  Losing all her players because of Player X, Molly is forced to start up a new game in New York City, where instead of the Hollywood elite, her players are some of the wealthiest people in the world.  Over time, Molly becomes addicted to drugs in order to keep up with her lifestyle, and when the Russian and American mob start to get involved, the FBI start tracking her and eventually show up outside her apartment.

This storyline is interwoven with one that takes place two years later, where Molly is broke and facing indictment, and must turn to attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her in court.  He is fascinated by her story, and even though she can't afford his services, he takes her on as a client and is willing to look beyond the tabloid headlines.  All the while, Molly herself narrates the story with the kind of speed and precision we have come to expect from an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.  When she explains how she ran her games with great detail, it can sometimes feel like information overload.  And to be honest, the legal scenes were not as interesting to me as the scenes depicting Molly running her games.  But what keeps our interest throughout are the performances by Chastain and Elba.  Michael Cera is great as well as the mysterious Player X, and it can be fun to speculate his real identity afterward. (It is rumored to be Tobey Maguire.)

Molly's Game touches on themes such as addiction in various forms (gambling, drugs, alcohol), and getting in too deep when crime syndicates start to get involved.  But it really is the personality and fierce determination of Molly Bloom, and the performance Chastain gives here, that kept me involved.  There are a couple moments that do feel a bit false, such as a scene late in the film where Molly and her father sit on a park bench.  It's well-acted and all, but it feels like a quick way to get a lot of exposition and character relationship out of the way.  We also pretty much know how the story is going to end up from the start of the film, an approach I am not a fan of when I am not initially familiar with the story, having not read the real life Molly Bloom's tell-all book, on which the film is based.  It's pretty much up to Sorkin's dialogue and the performances to carry the film, and at least they do an excellent job here.  I just felt like there could have been more surprises if the movie did not use the flashback approach.

Molly's Game is being groomed as an Oscar contender, and while I think the screenplay and lead performance by Chastain are likely to get nominated, I can't really see this being one of the big winners.  It's a very good movie, yes, but there's going to be a lot of competition going into wide release throughout January and February.  At the very least, Sorkin has proven that he can direct as well as he writes.  Having been a fan of his work for years, that's hardly a surprise.

2 comments

2 Comments:

  • Shape of water is great. Hope you get to see it.

    By Blogger Bill Sanderson Jr, at 7:05 PM  

  • Hi, Bill! I am happy to inform you that my theater will finally be getting Shape of Water this weekend, so you can expect a review soon. I've been anticipating this one for a while.

    I will also be reviewing 12 Strong, Den of Thieves and Phantom Thread this weekend.

    By Blogger Ryan, at 11:34 AM  

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