MOLLY’S GAME (2017) – High Stakes Poker Tale Plays Close to the Vest

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Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in MOLLY’S GAME (2017)

MOLLY’S GAME (2017), based on the true story of Olympic-class skier Molly Bloom who after a devastating injury which ended her skiing career went on to run some of the most expensive high stakes poker games in the world, and was subsequently prosecuted by the FBI, begs the question: are all “true stories” created equal?

The answer obviously is no, and most of the time movie makers get this right and don’t film stories not worth telling.  Here, in MOLLY’S GAME, I’m not so sure.

After a freak accident on the ski slopes ends her career and spoils her shot at making the Olympic team, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) moves to California to get as far away from her father Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner) as possible.  While he had always been hard on her, the main reason she can’t stand him is he cheated on her mom.

She lands a job as a cocktail waitress where she meets Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) a shadowy guy who hires her to be his personal secretary, a position that opens up the door for her to assist him with his high stakes poker game he runs every week, a game that attracts all sorts of celebrities, including a popular actor named only in the movie as Player X (Michael Cera).

After a falling out with Dean, Molly sets up shop on her own, and suddenly she’s the one running the high stakes poker game. Under her guidance, the game continues to grow, but after she moves it to New York, to attract even wealthier players, trouble brews, as she runs afoul of the Russian mob, the Italian mafia, and illegal drug use, eventually catching the attention of the FBI.

The story is told largely through flashback, as she tells her story to her attorney Charlie Jaffrey (Idris Elba).

MOLLY’S GAME is the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, known for his thought-provoking scripts for such films as THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and MONEYBALL (2011), to name a couple, and more so, for his classic TV series THE WEST WING (1999-2006). It’s an impressive debut.

The writing is top-notch and is full of snappy quick-paced dialogue, which is no surprise since Sorkin also wrote the script, based on the book Molly’s Game by Molly Bloom.

The acting is also excellent.  Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are two of my favorite actors working today.  In the lead role as Molly Bloom, Jessica Chastain knocks it out of the park, and her performance is the best part of this movie.  She makes Molly Bloom a compelling character, and I was more than interested in following her story.

Chastain has already delivered a host of notable performances, in such films as ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), THE HELP (2011), INTERSTELLAR 2014), and THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017), to name just a few.

Likewise, Idris Elba has also delivered a lot of excellent performances, although his best work is clearly on the TV show LUTHER (2010-2018) in which he plays DCI John Luther and he’s been phenomenal in the role for the entirety of the show’s run.

Strangely, there wasn’t a whole lot of chemistry between Chastain and Elba here.  Not that they were romantically involved, but in terms of plot, at first Elba’s attorney Charlie Jaffey wants no part of Molly’s case, but eventually he changes his mind, because he believes there’s more to her story than what he’s read in the tabloids, and it’s this part of the story that’s missing.  I was never convinced that Charlie would have changed his mind about Molly. I didn’t buy his change of heart because I never really saw him have that lightbulb moment where he realizes, I can defend this woman.  It’s supposed to be when he realizes that she’s had numerous opportunities to make lots of money off her story and has turned them all down, a reflection of her integrity as a person.  I understood this as a plot point, but I never felt it through Charlie’s character.

This was a major sticking point for me throughout the entire movie.  I understood it all, but all of it left me feeling rather empty.  The story worked intellectually, but not emotionally.

The cast is full of familiar faces who all do a wonderful job in their roles.  Kevin Costner is sufficiently cold and demanding as Molly’s psychologist dad Larry, who’s not going to win any father of the year awards.

Jeremy Strong is slimy and sexist as Dean Keith. Strong has been in a bunch of movies of late, including appearances in DETROIT (2017), THE BIG SHORT (2015), and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).

Michael Cera makes for a very unlikable Player X, while Chris O’Dowd makes for a rather likable Douglas Downey, a regular at the table who’s almost always drunk and who has affable conversations with Molly after the games. I like O’Dowd a lot, and he’s made similar impressions in films like ST. VINCENT (2014) and THE SAPPHIRES (2012).

Likewise, Brian D’Arcy James is memorable as Brad, nicknamed “Bad Brad” because he was the worst player at the table and lost regularly. D’Arcy James also appeared in SPOTLIGHT (2015) and most recently on the TV series 13 REASONS WHY (2017-18).

So, in MOLLY’S GAME, you have acting, writing, and directing that are all excellent, and yet, when it was all said and done, I found myself asking a big so what?

And that “so what?” refers to Molly’s story.  I enjoyed Jessica Chastain in the lead role, and I enjoyed learning about Molly Bloom, and her character is certainly interesting, but her story?  I dunno. For a while, it’s fascinating, and it’s certainly worthwhile learning about a woman who made it her mission to outwork powerful men and beat them at their own game.

All of this I liked, but the film, like some of the players sitting around the table, plays things close to the vest, and as a result it was difficult to gage just what people were feeling and why they were feeling it. And the story itself suffers for it, because it never really becomes alive or makes a compelling argument to its audience that this story needs to be told.  Ultimately, I agree with the judge at the end of the story who in making his ruling suggests that this whole case was much ado about nothing.

At the end of the day, there is just something missing here, and that something is heart. MOLLY’S GAME has little emotional connection with its audience. Intellectually, I understood and appreciated Molly’s story, and I enjoyed watching a story about a woman getting the upper hand over powerful and sexist men.  But emotionally, I never felt much for any of the characters, including Molly.  Molly should have been an extremely sympathetic character here, but she’s not.  The writing doesn’t allow her to be.

As such, I never felt a connection to Charlie Jaffey’s character, and I never believed his reasons for taking Molly’s case.  Moreover, I never felt the fear Molly should have felt being arrested by the FBI, or earlier the jubilation for a job well done running the high stakes poker game.  Maybe it’s because for Molly, there wasn’t much to feel.  The herculean effort it took for her to organize and run these games left her exhausted and got her addicted to drugs.

Or maybe it’s because in terms of stories, it’s just not one that pulls at the heartstrings.

I don’t know.

I do know that MOLLY’S GAME is a well-directed, expertly written, and professionally acted movie that held my interest for its 140 minute running time, but when it was over, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just watched a genuinely compelling story, or if like some of the players at the table in the movie, I had fallen victim to a monumental bluff.

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