Molly’s Game Review

Molly's Game Movie Review
(3.5 STARS)

Ludicrously entertaining. That’s about all I could muster after 150 glorious minutes in the world of Molly’s Game. As depicted by writer-director Aaron Sorkin and his always-but-especially incredible lead actress Jessica Chastain, Molly’s world is one of relentless one upsmanship and frighteningly high-stakes, and there’s no one better at writing clever — sometimes too clever for their own good — protagonists than Sorkin. There’s some fat that could have been trimmed, and Sorkin sometimes finds himself in the weeds, but like Molly, he always has a plan and always figures it out.

Based on the true story of the so-called “poker princess,” Molly’s Game opens with a popper of a scene that introduces Molly (Chastain) as a competitive skier. She’s always calculating precise odds of success or failure if she hits this mogul at this speed, but nothing prepares her for a small twig that’s frozen in ice on her Olympic qualifying course. The resulting accident knocks her out of competition forever and leaves her reeling personally — unsure about what the future might bring.

Against her father’s (Kevin Costner) wishes, she postpones law school and takes a job in Los Angeles as a personal assistant for a young real-estate mogul who ran a high-stakes poker game for the richest and most famous — actors, rock stars, CEOs, politicians. She doesn’t know a thing about the game, but the tips are great, so she learns quickly. And when her boss decides he doesn’t like the attention she’s getting from the game’s players, he fires her, forcing her to go into the poker business for herself.

The business, by necessity, toes the line between legal and illegal very carefully, but Molly believes she has all her ducks in a row. However, that’s seemingly contradicted via the film’s structure, which introduces us to Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), a lawyer who reluctantly agrees to try to help keep Molly out of federal prison.

That structure most immediately recalls The Social Network with two intercut threads — one about a morally complicated rise and another that follows that rise’s legal ramifications. While the story of The Social Network was familiar to millions, that of Molly’s Game will be new to most. I didn’t know anything about this woman, but I left the film frantically Googling, trying to find out who Player X (Michael Cera) really was.

But for the unfamiliarity of the details, Molly’s Game isn’t exactly fresh. Nor does its filmmaking break any ground. (Sorkin, in his directorial debut, will still be thought of as a writer following this effort, and probably for good reason.) We also get extended sequences on one player or another that neither advances the overall narrative nor does much for Molly’s character development, but all of these faults are easily overlooked for the film’s free-wheeling and easygoing charm.

Molly is an easy-to-root-for protagonist, especially the way she’s brought to life by Chastain. While she’s unquestionably one of our finest working actresses, she’s occasionally overlooked, I think, because her performances are more lived-in than showy. For all the dynamic dialogue Molly gets to speak, little of it is traditionally actorly. You could envision Sorkin’s Molly’s Game script as a burn-through-it beach read — even more so than the film’s actual source material, I’d imagine — but Chastain is the one who makes the words sing. She’s always in over her head, yet she never loses her cool. She’s someone who you think is invulnerable, yet every moment is spent in place of extreme vulnerability. While it might not be recognized as such, it’s one of the strongest performances of the year, male or female.

Molly’s Game might end up buried by the holiday season and its accompanying onslaught of prestige films, but it’s right up there with the best of them. It’s not classical or even all that thematically engrossing, but it’s breezy and sexy, and you’ll be hard-pressed to have more straight-up fun with a movie this month or maybe even this year.

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