In Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin may have found the Sorkiniest of material with which to make his directorial debut. Based on the eponymous memoir, the tale of Molly Bloom’s journey from wealthy poker hostess to the centre of an FBI money laundering investigation is a dense, dramatic, exceedingly talky affair that bristles with murky morals, corrupt officials, legal machinations and a sleazy tabloid media – all told through the glitzy prism of celebrity poker. It’s also Sorkin’s most progressive and surprisingly feminist piece work to date, celebrating the courageous resolve of one talented woman who repeatedly suffers at the hands of powerful men and keeps pulling herself back up.
Jessica Chastain is Bloom, a former competitive skier who, following a devastating knee injury, heads to Los Angeles in search of a fresh start. There she winds up working for a Hollywood slimeball who puts her in charge of running his weekly celebrity poker game. Though wildly successful, Bloom quickly grows frustrated with the unbalanced power differential and decides to strike out on her own. Soon she’s running the hottest game in the world and living lavishly off the extravagant tips of her high-rolling clients, which include movie stars, athletes, business tycoons and members of the Russian mafia. And that’s when the FBI come calling…
What unfolds is 140-minutes of slick, compulsively absorbing courtroom drama as Bloom battles the competing threats of the FBI, a public smear campaign and pressure from her own lawyer to spill the beans on her clients in order to avoid serving jail time. Working behind the camera for the first time, Sorkin keeps things simple, restricting the action to drab, windowless rooms that lock in the tension, allowing his snappy screenplay take centre stage. Every scene crackles with Sorkin’s familiar rat-a-tat-tat rhythm and rapid-fire dialogue, which more than compensate for the lack of visual panache.
It also doesn’t hurt to have an actor as utterly compelling as Chastain in the lead role. While her co-stars perform effectively in entertaining, if largely one-note roles, Chastain is sensational as the resilient, beleaguered Bloom. Far from the trashy party-girl depicted in the tabloids, the movie reveals Bloom to be a richly complex character. She’s incredibly intelligent, hard-working and fiercely ambitious, having built a multi-million dollar business using little more than her wits; yet she’s also an aggressive, antagonist alcoholic who sought to profit off the addictions of others. Chastain plays these hidden depths superbly, lending pathos and emotional strength to someone who has been misrepresented, mistreated and mistrusted by everyone around her and yet remains true to her moral convictions.
It’s Molly’s defiance that will likely prove difficult for viewers to accept, especially in the wake of the recent sexual misconduct allegations that have swept Hollywood. While her determination to defend her reputation is understandable, the fact that this requires her to protect the misdeeds and abuses of powerful men makes her stance feel less admirable. More uncomfortable still is a late hint at a possible redemption for these men. In the end, Molly is saved not by her own talents and intelligence, but by the benevolence of a group of old men who take pity on her. How audiences react to that will determine whether Molly’s Game possesses a winning hand or a busted flush.
Runtime: 140 mins (approx.)
Screenwriter/director: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera