The best movies about poker are often about more than the game itself. A great example is Rounders. That movie isn’t so much about turning a losing hand into a winner through the power of bluffing as it is loyalty and the limits of friendship. So, too, is screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s work rarely just about what can be covered in a plot synopsis. The 30-year veteran of stage, TV, and film writing crafted two of the best biopics of this decade with 2010’s The Social Network and 2015’s Steve Jobs. Those films are character studies that seek answers to questions concerning true genius and the uglier traits of driven and brilliant men.
Critics and audiences have often lamented Sorkin’s writing of female characters. The women he writes are sometimes two dimensional; they serve to add overwrought hysterics or a love interest to the story. With Molly’s Game, Sorkin has challenged himself to confront this weakness. His protagonist, Molly Bloom, is as driven as the subjects in The Social Network or Steve Jobs. Her story is also as complex, fascinating, and as rewarding of a character study as anything Sorkin has ever written.
This is also Sorkin’s first attempt at directing. He proves himself as confident and competent behind the camera as he is in front of a keyboard. The film is based on Bloom’s memoir: Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker. It charts her path from promising young Olympic hopeful and member of the US ski team to the FBI sweeping her up in an organized crime indictment. This is Sorkin’s fifth straight project based on actual events. The streak started with 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War, and includes Moneyball.
The main dramatic thrust of Molly’s Game covers how the competitive Bloom established herself as the host and organizer of elite private poker games. They attracted rich and powerful men from both Hollywood and high finance. Bloom changed most of the names in her memoir, but because of a leaked deposition, she included a few real ones, too. Among them were Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. At one time, she ran games in both L.A. and New York, sometimes hosting simultaneous games in a city on the same night. This stressful lifestyle lead to a reliance on drugs and alcohol, and it all fell apart when she unwittingly began admitting men to her games who had ties to the Russian mob.
I wrote above that Bloom’s games attracted rich and powerful men. The players were never women, at least according to the movie. That fact gets to a core theme of Molly’s Game. While Bloom is ambitious and uncompromising, she is at the same time operating in a world ruled by elite (and often vindictive) men. Sorkin is careful to emphasize that women like Bloom can turn their dreams into reality, but because men are still primarily the gatekeepers, they wield most of the control.
It’s a bitterly unfair system, and three men in Bloom’s life exemplify how much so. The first is her employer, a man whom she gives the pseudonym Dean Keith. Bloom starts out as Keith’s personal assistant. Eventually he initiates her into the world of underground poker when he asks her to start organizing the weekly games. Her influence with the players becomes more than Keith can tolerate, and he attempts to cut her out by firing her.
She starts her own game with the help of another player, a famous actor whom she only refers to as Player X. After a while, this man also decides Bloom is taking too much attention from what he considers the real reason the high-rollers show up to play. He thinks they all want the opportunity to say they played with a big Hollywood star, namely him. After Player X successfully blocks her from organizing any more games, Bloom sets up shop in New York.
It’s the third man in Bloom’s life, her father, that represents Sorkin’s weakest plot point. Larry Bloom is a psychologist and pushes each of his three children to be exceptional. In flash back sequences we see Molly rebel against her father as a response to his intense expectations. These revelations lead to an emotional climax between the two late in the movie that borders on ludicrous. Larry says he’ll provide Molly with three years’ worth of therapy in three minutes. This culminates in his revealing to his daughter the real reason she struggles to be a success in the male-dominated world of poker.
That one scene aside, the rest of Sorkin’s script hums with his trademark wit and screwball comedy-style pacing. In his work on TV (Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60), Sorkin collaborated with director Tommy Schlamme, who used the writer’s zippy dialog to create “walk-and-talks.” Molly’s Game is Sorkin’s first attempt at directing, and instead of using Schlamme’s technique, he’s gone the opposite direction, staging what might be called “sit-and-talks.” These moments are best exemplified in the scenes between Molly and Charlie Jaffey, the attorney she hires to defend her against the organized crime charges.
Sorkin’s direction does not, however, feel stage bound because of these sequences. His frenetic screenplay is deft at mixing Molly’s brief career in skiing, her reign of organizing poker games, and her collaboration with Jaffey in her defense. The first act of Molly’s Game contains some of the most thrilling camera flourishes and editing seen on screen this year. Without the calm dialog scenes, the editing on the picture might have felt too restless. Both elements come together, though, to provide a beautiful balance.
Adding to the virtuoso filmmaking are the superb acting skills of the two leads. Jessica Chastain is a force of nature as Molly Bloom. She carries the film, appearing in almost every frame, and her charisma and formidable acting ability are hard to overstate. At various points throughout the movie, Chastain is tough, angry, and vulnerable. She is an actress with an enormous range, capable of hitting multiple notes at once.
Idris Elba plays Molly’s attorney, Charlie Jaffey, with a focused intensity. There are moments in movies when actors give speeches that call attention to themselves as being awards nomination worthy. I usually balk at these moments because they tend to take me out of the movie. Elba has two such speeches. Instead of being resistant, though, I was drawn in even more. If this performance doesn’t get Elba an Oscar nomination, nothing will.
Molly’s Game is a live wire of a movie. The story is captivating, and both Sorkin’s writing and direction combine to make an entertaining trip to a part of society most of us will never get anywhere near. It’s a thoughtful meditation on power, money, and gender. It also includes a few riveting hands of poker to boot.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Molly's Game is a slick, exciting, entertaining movie. It's also thematically layered, and the performances are incredible.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I mentioned how much I enjoy Bill Camp in this space of my review for The Killing of a Sacred Deer a few weeks ago. Camp turns up in Molly's Game for about 10 minutes and proceeds to steal the show. He is so good as a gambler who lets a bluff get the better of him. I would love it if Camp could get a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his work here.
- I didn't really touch on it in the review, but this movie has some serious points to make about how toxic capitalism has become in our society. Sorkin never gets preachy with his writing, he simply hints at the point he's making, and lets the audience do the rest.
- When used poorly, voice-over narration can be a glaring weakness in a movie. What usually happens in these instances is the narration simply tells us what we're already seeing on screen, or even worse, describing things we could just as easily be shown visually. The narration here is insightful, well written, funny, and brilliantly used. The first act is a master class on setting up a protagonist.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Spielberg. Hanks. Streep. The movie is The Post, and it's about one newspaper's attempts in the 1970s to publish coverage on the Pentagon Papers, a damning report about The Vietnam War. I know Spielberg can get anything made, but I'm thanking the success of Spotlight for this movie getting the green light.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
I watched this one at home, so everyone behaved perfectly, thank you very much!