Produced by Mark Gordon,
Amy Pascal, Matt Jackson
Based on the book by Molly Bloom
Written and Directed by Aaron Sorkin
Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba,
Kevin Costner, Michael Cera,
Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp
Aaron Sorkin has a certain talent for taking the wild success of young white entrepreneurs and creating empathy and understanding for them over the course of two hours.
Molly’s Game is more of the same. What could have been a shallow reflection of privilege and just desserts is instead presented as a study of a young woman’s mistakes of flying too high too quickly and getting caught up and something far more nefarious then she ever intended.
At least, that seems to be the intention.
The film is based on the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), who ran the world’s most exclusive high stakes poker game on both the East and the West Coast before being arrested for business contacts she didn’t even know that she had. As she faces the court, defended by a lawyer (Idris Elba) that is slowly growing in his understanding of how wrong his original perceptions of her were, we learn that the road to her notoriety is not the smooth and straight path the public may have believed.
Told through flashbacks, spliced in stock footage, and current sentencing, the film never strays from painting Molly as a victim of circumstance. It is strange that there is little to no balance of her own part in this mess. It’s almost as if Sorkin is treating her life story with kid gloves. The men that surround her are roundly villains outside of the almost angelic Charlie Jaffey, played impeccably by Elba. Indeed, if a strong, endlessly scrupulous, silver fox Black man is ever needed for a name brand director, Elba is justifiably at the top of every list in Hollywood at this point. Chastain speaks at a Gilmore Girls-esque clip, coming off as sharp and cool in an artificial way that makes it seem like she is always just a few bad turns away from completely breaking down from the weight of the charges levied against her. While her at times steely reserve does little to endear her to the audience, the flashbacks of a young woman trying to make it in a world of men prop up the empathy that Sorkin injects at every turn.
One of the better performances turned in is Michael Cera as Player X. After coming into the national consciousness as the sweet and naive George Michael Bluth of Arrested Development, Michael Cera has been taking edgier roles these past years. For as good as he is at playing a moral conscience, he is excellent as a complete jerk. When asked by Molly why he likes to play in this high-stakes game, he replies that he “likes to ruin lives”. And there is no mistaking that is exactly what drives him. Yet what should be complete hatred is also enviable and enticing in a way that speaks to Cera’s talent. Kevin Costner is also a strong supporting presence as her demanding and intense psychologist father.
A movie primarily about men sitting around a table playing cards and exchanging money could easily have significant amounts of downtime but the pacing and action is swift and decadent. Moving from swanky LA hotel rooms to decked out apartments looking over Central Park, the trappings of excessive wealth create a peek inside of a world few of us have access to. The change in wardrobe for Chastain, from dowdy department store dresses to tight low-cut masterpieces does an excellent job of showing how she polished herself to shine as bright as the diamonds that these men could buy and sell without thought.
There are certain flaws that cannot be helped with a story like this, especially as a failure of financial success from someone already born of privilege is a tough lift, at least in terms of empathy from mainstream audiences. But the glimpses of vulnerability that Chastain gives to Molly, an excellent job of casting, and the real (though almost tediously repetitive) insistence of her innocence makes it clear that as long as Sorkin is directing, the house will always win.