365 Movies By Day Reviews of Movies I Watch that I Feel Like Writing About

1Jan/180

Molly’s Game (2017)

In my personal life, I've mentioned many times that I am so glad I am not addicted to gambling. I have many other problems and the added temptation of a big payday by sacrificing my own hard-earned money with less than successful odds sounds absolutely miserable.

In Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut, he tells the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain - A Most Violent Year, Take Shelter), an Olympic level skier who once ran one of the most exclusive high-stakes poker games for more than a decade, two years before her arrest that saw FBI agents surrounding her house with automatic guns in the middle of the night. It's a legitimate directorial debut and one that is worthy of its high praise. But despite how well made the movie is, I believe it to be a much more enjoyable and educational film if you are familiar with the game of poker. I have no idea how to play the game, so while I was fascinated by the movie, there were definitely many parts where I felt like the odd one sitting around a kitchen table because there were many terms thrown around that I did not understand as well as actions, motives, dialogue, and even purposes that felt very foreign to me. As a result, the movie didn't hook me like it did many of the other films that Sorkin also wrote (The Social Network, Moneyball, Steve Jobs, Charlie Wilson's War not to mention his credits as a lead writer on television's The West Wing and Newsroom). That's not to say Sorkin should stick to screenwriting. He absolutely should not. It's just that I will look forward to seeing him direct a movie revolving around a different theme in the future rather than revisiting Molly's Game, a film that, frankly, will be one that I will forever forget about soon after I write this review.

Molly Bloom is the first female heroine that Sorkin tackles. A former United States Ski Team Olympic hopeful, her sports career is circumvented by a freak injury during a qualifying heat. She abandons law school and finds herself sleeping on her friend's coach in California where she waitresses and works as a secretary in an attempt to jump-start a career. We learn the story of this fearsomely sharp woman as she unfolds it to her by the books, criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba - Beasts of No Nation, The Mountain Between Us). There is quite a bit of voiceover dialog as Molly tells of her rise as the "Poker Princess" some two years after she last ran a legally cloudy poker table for the rich and creepy in Los Angeles and New York for nearly a decade. Based on her book by the same name, Sorkin approaches the movie intent on letting Chastain showcase her acting prowess take center stage and show how an intelligent, beautiful, and sexy woman (who knew nothing about the game of Poker at first) could make herself into such a big name in the seedy underworld of some of the biggest, behind closed doors, high-stakes poker games ever. Her games drew the likes of Hollywood royalty, ultra-successful businessmen, and even members of the Russian Mafia which, ultimately, led to the FBI cracking down on her.

We see how she learns the tricks of the trade after Dean (Jeremy Strong) a low-level and unsuccessful talent producer spots her working as a cocktail waitress. He hires her as his assistant. After earning her trust, he has her organize his high-stakes poker games that he uses to rub elbows with many of Hollywood's elite. Molly quickly begins learning all of the terminology (deal, flop, turn, river, showdown, etc.), the rules, the trades, the players and their unique characteristics, and, most importantly, how to run a successful poker-table. So she does what any entrepreneur wanting to make her way to the top might do...she starts her own table, rubbing Dean out of the process entirely by telling people of the new location that he doesn't know of.

At Molly's table are movie stars like the "Player X” (Michael Cera - Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) who is probably the biggest antagonist in the movie, shady hedge fund managers (Brian d’Arcy James and Chris O’Dowd - St. Vincent, Bridesmaids), slimy New York society elites (Jon Bass) and, eventually, worse. And she makes millions while doing so. Molly was simply the bank. The bankrolled the games, vetted the players, and extended their credit. Her biggest problem initially was that she did not have the traditional resources (i.e. physical enforcement) to collect on debts owed by players who she extended credit to and lost everything they had. But, as you might imagine, the toll it took on her became overwhelming. She made her money from tips, but she found herself, with the increased $250,000 buy-ins, of players needing extended credit from her and when those players continued to lose money, the defaulted on their payback. The players at the table began to shift and no longer did she truly know who was coming into her room each game tonight. She turned to drugs, took a percentage of the money from the pot, and became extremely sloppy when it came to her work, especially after she began running a game in New York City (in addition to her one in Los Angeles). This is where the Russia Mafia got involved and prompted the FBI to probe Molly and lead to her appearances in a court of law.

So what was Molly's motivation? A lot of it probably goes back to her father Larry (Kevin Costner - Mr. Brooks, Field of Dreams) and the unreal expectations that he placed on his children. He expected his kids to be the absolute best at everything she did. One of her brothers achieved the dream their father set for them both by becoming a two-time Olympic medalist. The other was a surgeon at Harvard. When Molly suffered her career-ending injury, she had to find her new motivation. And that she did.

Sorkin was both good and bad in his first performance behind the camera. My biggest problem with the film was that, at 140 minutes, it was too long. I'm guessing Sorkin would disagree. In his past films, he had a director to edit and weed out the parts of the film that were not needed. In Molly's Game, he didn't have someone to filter out the fodder. There were scenes that could have been cut shorter, characters that could have been eliminated entirely, and loose ends that could have been tightened up. Still, it's an excellent debut. He's A reason why the movie succeeds. But he isn't THE reason why it does. This is Chastian's movie. She has never been better. It will remind many of the formidable, most sought-after lobbyist in 2016's Miss Sloane. Here she isn't quite as cunning but is just as fierce. She doesn't always have the immediate solutions that her character did in Miss Sloane and this makes her a little more vulnerable. But I also think that this is what makes her character a stronger protagonist. She's learning, adjusting, and trying to play by the rules. But, like every one of us, she's a flawed human being who is going to make a billion mistakes along the way. She's lonely. She's sad. She needs praise. She had fame and fortune at her fingertips before her freak skiing accident. And we know that she has never fully recovered (emotionally) from that. Chastain played Molly brilliantly and the movie is worth watching for her performance alone.

It's a good movie. Those who understand poker, even a little, will enjoy it more than those who don't. I think if you don't understand poker, but do understand gambling that you will also enjoy it more than someone who does not.

Plot 9/10
Character Development 8/10
Character Chemistry 8/10
Acting 8/10
Screenplay 8.5/10
Directing 8/10
Cinematography 8.5/10
Sound 8/10
Hook and Reel 8.5/10
Universal Relevance 9/10
83.5%

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