Can’t read my poker face
Aaron Sorkin is the kind of coked-out writer who could make almost anything sound interesting. This is a guy who won an Academy Award for a script all about the creation of Facebook for crying out loud. Oh yeah, and he also created a show called The West Wing. Now granted, while I like quite a bit of the man’s writing, he is by no means flawless. I mean I know there are some people who are fans of Moneyball and Steve Jobs (2015), but those films just lack any character and feel way too damn self-important. So here comes Sorkin’s latest film script which also sees the illustrious writer for the first time in the director’s seat of a cast of powerhouse actors. How’d he do? Let’s dive into Molly’s Game.
Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) was an aspiring Olympic skier and a brilliant mind, who suffered a massive injury while trying to qualify for the American team. Deciding to give herself a break from her rampant desire for perfection, she decides to move to Los Angeles as a cocktail waitress where she meets a real estate agent named Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), who introduces Molly to his world of celebrity poker matches in a seedy bar. Bloom finds herself hobnobbing with movie stars, multi-million dollar hedge fund managers, directors and other well known personalities through these poker games, including one such celebrity she names “Player X” (Michael Cera). Eventually, Bloom’s tenacity develops into a full high stakes profession for the young woman, that soon lands her in the FBI’s crosshairs in a massive money-laundering scheme involving the Russian mob. Thus requiring Molly to enlist the help of a high-powered defense attorney played by Idris Elba, who pieces together Molly’s rise and fall in her poker world.
Gambling is one of those concepts that’s hard to make interesting in a film scenario. Sure, sometimes you’ll have unique ideas like Casion Royale (2006); but most of the time, watching play poker on screen just isn’t fascinating to watch. So a big point is given in Sorkin’s favor as he utilizes a quick-cut, frenetic style during the games as the camera zips around various poker table to Chastain’s OCD-intense narration that makes Texas Hold’em one of the world’s most brutal sports on a person’s psyche. Now granted, while poker is a big part of this movie, it is by no means the focus of the film. Rather, Sorkin wisely focuses on the star attraction: Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom.
Now Bloom was a fascinating person to read about, given the fact she quickly figured out how to sell luxurious poker games to the rich and famous, thereby netting her income exclusively through tips alone…at least at first. As more and more players entered her world, she also discovered that several compulsive gamblers don’t actually have the cash they claim to have, which resulted in her having to start taking proceeds from certain pots…which is illegal under U.S. Federal Law if you don’t have a gaming license (which she definitely did not). And Sorkin, to his credit, very carefully helps you understand why Bloom did what she did to such a degree that you catch yourself excusing a lot of her behavior; because despite her desire for self-destruction, she also had unwavering loyalty to almost all of her clients and refused to identify many of them even with a gun to her head (sometimes figuratively AND literally). While I wouldn’t call Bloom completely sympathetic, much like Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, I was highly invested in where Bloom was coming from and what she sought out of life.
Speaking of which, much like I, Tonya, this movie has a knockout lead performance courtesy of Jessica Chastain. She oozes such ferocity, sensuality, cunning and determination that I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. And this really is such a rare role for a woman to play as you typically see men in these kinds of roles. But given the true story element, and the fact Chastain likely conversed intimately with the real Molly Bloom (who likely had a hand in creative control as the film, quite bluntly, discusses), the veteran actress gives one of the best performances of her very storied career. I really thought Margot Robbie had the Best Actress award in the bag before watching Molly’s Game, but now I’m convinced we have a two-way race (if Frances McDormand doesn’t take them both by surprise).
The rest of this star-studded cast does some impressive work as well. From Kevin Costner as Molly’s demanding and complicated father to Chris O’Dowd as one of Molly’s wannabe paramours, you have some great thespians flexing their skills. You even have a few actors giving heavy-hitting peformances in small scenes like Bill Camp and Brian d’Arcy James. But no actor, besides Chastain, surprised me more than Michael Friggin’ Cera. He plays a complete BASTARD of a character.
The reason Cera is so shocking in this film is that he doesn’t look all that threatening in terms of physicality; but when the young actors opens his mouth, your jaw drops at how much of a monster he could be towards other people. I really think Sorkin took some notes while on the set of The Social Network, and gave his thoughts of Jesse Eisenberg’s magnetic peformance to Cera. Worst is when he smirks and laughs at other’s misery. And the craziest part about his character? He’s apparently inspired by the likes of Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, and especially Tobey Maguire (all three of these guys are hardcore poker players and the latter of the trio is notorious for being an absolute scumbag at tables).
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight Idris Elba as well. Because he does a fine job throughout the film, even if his accent gets a bit muddied from scene to scene. But he delivers an impassioned lawyer speech towards the end of this movie that was just simply perfect. The words are everything I love about Sorkin, and Elba totally nails the delivery in the relentless and indignant attitude of Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Overall, I’m left with very little to criticize this movie with. While it doesn’t quite make my Top Ten list for 2017, it’s still a damn great film and I’ll be updating the list of runners up once I’ve seen the last big Oscar contenders of the previous year. Highly recommend checking this one out, as this is getting an enthusiastic…
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