High Stakes For One And All: Molly's Game
At the beginning of Molly's Game, the title character asks what's the worst feeling someone can experience, and cites various sports examples. Molly (Jessica Chastain) has a worst sports moment of her own when the former Olympic skiing hopeful suffers a career-ending injury, but she learns worse things are to come. Years after her Olympic aspirations ended, and two years after she ended a poker enterprise she'd built herself, she gets a call from the FBI, who call her to announce they're at her door and about to arrest her. She's been accused of running an illegal gambling operation, and for having ties to organized crime. She got into the poker business through Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), a real estate developer who enjoys the game, and has ties to other men of wealth, especially in business, sports and entertainment. Molly, hired by Dean as an office assistant, makes the arrangements for the game. For her efforts, Molly gets paid more for her work there than she does as an assistant. She learns the game - and Dean's game as she continues. When she does things that Dean doesn't like, he fires her.
By then, she has gathered enough information about these poker nights to start her own game, taking Dean's players with her. When one of them successfully conspires to bring the game back to Dean, she heads to New York and begins again. Among the regulars that Molly sees on either coast are an actor identified only as Player X (Michael Cera), a card sharp and troubled businessman named Harlan Eustice (Bill Camp), an investor, Brad Ruderman (Brian d'Arcy James), known as Bad Brad for his habit of losing, and Douglas Downey (Chris O'Dowd), a player with a crush on Molly. Each of them either has plans for the game, or has contacts that build Molly's business. One of them brings in mob influences who want to do more than gambling. After her arrest, she gets help from Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), a prominent lawyer who tells her what to expect in the court of Judge Dustin Foxman (Graham Greene). Molly's legal troubles also get the attention of her estreanged father, Larry (Kevin Costner), a renowned psychologist who was also a demanding father and coach.
Molly's Game, based on the book by Bloom, chronicles Bloom, chronicles her time in the world of poker. The movie grows more and more engrossing as the young woman postpones law school and builds a business by her own rules. Molly may serve as a counselor to her players, but they always make the final decisions about their financial stakes. In this world, Molly gets the same sort of rush she had when she took to the slopes. She experiences an even harder fall when the government seized almost all of her assets in their investigation. The movie also contains statements about youthful rebellion and a world where so many men insist on dominance in all matters. Aaron adapts Bloom's book into a sharply-written screenplay where everybody in the legal process wants to hold the winning hand as much as most of Molly's players did. Sorkin makes his debut as a director with this picture, and provides a story rich in detail. While characterization lacks, Sorkin (and Bloom) does so deliberately to show Molly did not accept a mix of business and pleasure.
Chastain brings both smarts and great looks as Molly, who knowingly ran an illegal gambling game, but also wanted to make her place as welcoming as possible. Dean often played in places with little light, but Molly welcomed a lit room that complemented her bright and warm personality. Her interest in legal issues also helps her in her defense as she explains to Charlie that the IRS claim that she failed to pay taxes is false. She shows the documents to prove that she paid. Elba is her intellectual equal as Charlie, who sees Molly's struggles and takes on her case because nobody else she knew had time to defend her. One of his best scenes happens at their initial court hearing, as he constantly switches seats with an associate as he asks Molly questions that lead him to remain as counsel. Cera, whose Player X is often assumed to be Tobey Maguire, shows a good-natured player until he can't have things his way. Costner also has a fine supporting role as Larry, who gives Molly moral support and a quick analysis of her adult life. Greene also has a great moment as Judge Foxman, a by-the-book judge who lets his attitude about the trial be known before he passes sentence. I was also impressed by Samantha Isler, who played Molly during her years on skis, and looks a bit like a younger version of Chastain.
In Molly's Game, everyone finds a moment to put their cards on the table, whether at the end of a hand or in a moment of perception. Smart and skillful people abound in this film, but chance sends Molly to places she never expected to be. James Brown famously sang "This is a man's world." Most of the men in Molly's Game either don't know or don't care about the line he sang after that.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Molly's Game four stars. Such a deal.