Arts movie review

The Poker Princess’s empire of wealth rises and falls

Memoir turned film in Aaron Sorkin’s stunning directorial debut ‘Molly‘s Game’

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Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain star in 'Molly's Game.'

Molly’s Game
Directed by Aaron Sorkin
Screenplay written by Aaron Sorkin
Based on Molly Bloom’s book Molly’s Game
Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera
Rated R, now playing

From her childhood, skiing law student Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) was like her brothers, possessing a brilliant future in both academics and sports due to her father’s (Kevin Costner) influence. But a protruding stick in the snow first takes her skis and then her Olympic career away. After this failure, she doesn’t go to law school but instead tries to build financial independence. By coincidence, she ends up working a spreadsheet for a poker game and soon finds herself running underground multimillion dollar poker games. After her FBI arrest, she faces a court trial with lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to fight for her freedom.

Twice, Molly Bloom falls from grace. First: her Olympic skiing accident that puts her out of the contest. Next: her arrest for running poker games that marks her as a felon. Brilliant law student turns criminal as she buries herself deeper into the world of the elite. She switches from a casual J.C. Penney frock to tight Barneys dresses. Food porn, sex appeal, lavish hotels, high-stakes poker: this is the visual language the film and its characters speak in.

A refreshing change is Molly’s shrewd, complicated brilliance and the rare juxtaposition of sensual visuals with the non-sensual art of running a business. Molly’s Cinemax image is important in this world: body-hugging dresses empower her among men who only see dollar signs and women to sleep with. The elites she rules over include the wunderkinds of Silicon Valley, the star studded, the yacht club, the Russian mob, or essentially, the untouchables. One man even offers a Monet painting for collateral. It’s no surprise that films about the illegal underworld have been popular in the past. The Average Joe of America is fascinated by these people, and perhaps the irony is that once you join these people, the fall from grace hurts, and nobody knows this better than Molly.

Molly commands a fair table. She narrates, “In this room you couldn’t buy your win, you couldn’t buy me, and you couldn’t buy a seat at the table.”Men hit on her, but she refuses their advances. She asks a lawyer to ensure she is running a legal operation. She eventually makes her Molly Bloom poker chips, name, logo, and all. Her name is what she tries to protect, both in court and in life, in spite of the allure of money. But this changes when she rigs a game to take some of the pot money and does molly (pun intended) to stay awake for her business dealings.

So what does all this say about the film? First, I’m a sucker for films about the mob, the nouveau riche, poker, and Sorkinese writing. You don’t know how much I wanted to love this film. What went wrong? The film echoes of The Social Network — comparisons are inevitable — while not quite being there. The Social Network is written tightly and paced rapidly. Molly’s Game possesses the same quick dialogue, but it doesn’t have the same urgency. But the film’s worst sin is its need for Molly to be a redeemed hero. Her meeting with her father and the passionate speech by Molly’s lawyer preach Molly’s redemption in a way that removes our right to decide for ourselves. I’m disappointed at this loss, but I am also too engrossed by the film to not recommend a watch.

For Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, this is fitting. Molly is thrown headfirst into a world she runs and then loses control of before she redeems herself. Sorkin directs his own screenwriting, navigating the unique elements of a fast-paced Sorkin film, losing control before ending with the Sorkin-styled preachy dialogue. So go, join the table, just for the experience.