Molly's Game

(2017) *** R
140 min. STX. Director: Aaron Sorkin. Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Brian d'Arcy James, Bill Camp.

/content/films/5091/1.jpgLet’s be clear: Molly’s Game—the directorial debut of Oscar and Emmy-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin—isn’t profound. In fact, it’s pretty darn silly, never more so than when it’s trying to make a point. And yet, this adventure in dubious capitalist ambition has an ace in the hole, its star Jessica Chastain.

Chastain stars as Molly Bloom, whose memoir Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker recounts her roller-coaster youth as a highly ranked competitive skier, the abrupt end of that life, her reinvention as the host of a high-stakes Hollywood poker game, and the fallout from an FBI bust. Sorkin slaloms expertly through the exposition, then juggles present-day scenes with fill-in-the-gaps flashbacks as Bloom explains her quasi-ethical entrepreneurial enterprise to Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), the lawyer she hopes will represent her in federal court.

Molly learns the ropes of underground poker games from an unscrupulous boss (Jeremy Strong) before designing her own better mousetrap and operating on her own. She lands big-time participants like movie star “Player X” (Michael Cera), career gambler Harlan Eustice (Bill Camp), hedge fund manager Brad (Brian d’Arcy James), and sad-sack simpleton Douglas Downey (Chris O’Dowd), who gets Molly involved with the Russian mob. Like a madam coddling johns, Molly tries to keep the men happy and, when necessary, salve their wounded egos, a fiercely intelligent den mother who needs her overgrown boys.

Jaffey needs some serious convincing to take Molly’s case, but he’s ultimately won over by a certain legal relativity in a 34-person indictment and her insistence in protecting the names of her clients. Much of the film’s running time finds Molly explaining herself and making her case to Jaffey in his law office, as his impressionable daughter passes through. The daddy-daughter motif gets writ large (too large in the film’s overwritten climax) in the relationship between Molly and her clinical psychologist father (Kevin Costner), with both characters too smart for their own emotional good.

Molly’s Game touches on some interesting ideas: about personal invention and reinvention, about the rarified playgrounds—with their own sets of rules—of the rich and famous, and about the arbitrary justice mobilized when more money starts changing civilian hands than the government will ignore. Mostly, though, Sorkin’s film is an engine of plot, with character cogs interplaying with big wheels as we sit back and admire the machinery.

Sorkin’s flair for whip-crack dialogue, structural shenanigans, and character chemistry remains a winningly shameless three-ring circus for the screen, and his thoroughly excellent ensemble help to distract from his infamous artifice. It’s Chastain, though, in one of her finest turns to date, that owns the picture. Sorkin’s wall of words aside, making Molly Bloom a sympathetic antiheroine is no small feat, but Chastain nails her intelligence, her exasperated superiority, and the vulnerability they hide.

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