This sweeping, swirling look at the life of an Olympic skiing hopeful turned facilitator of one of the most exclusive poker games in the world also marks the directing debut of Aaron Sorkin, the writer of such films as The Social Network, Moneyball, and The American President. Molly’s Game is based on the book (from which Sorkin also adapted the screenplay) by the film’s subject, Molly Bloom, played here by Jessica Chastain, who sports an intensity that she’s previously given us in glimpses but rarely unleashed to this degree.
The film jumps around from past to present (Bloom was busted for running a network of games in 2013, although at that point, she hadn’t run a game in two years), but a great deal of her story is told in flashback as she attempts to convince attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to defend her at her arraignment and possibly officially take on her case. She’d already published her memoir (subtitled “The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World”) in the hopes of earning much-needed funds after the FBI seized all of her money. Jaffey has the book as the blueprint, but he wants details and, in particular, names that he can use as a bargaining chip with the investigators to convince them to go easy on her.
The film dives deep into her younger years when she trained like mad to be an Olympic-level skier (under the watchful eye of her father, played by Kevin Costner). Even after a devastating injury that required pins in her spine to help her heal, she was on the slopes a year later, better than ever. A freak accident killed her Olympic dreams, and soon she’s scrounging around L.A., looking for any job, when she becomes the assistant to a low-level film producer who just also happens to run a star-studded poker game populated by famous actors, sports stars and CEOs with money to burn.
She acts as hostess and keeps the books. Her winning personality, combined with a newly learned, deep understanding of the game, makes her a favorite among all the players. Michael Cera plays an actor known only as Player X, although it’s clear the real person is someone quite rich, famous and influential on many levels. Before long he and Molly are helping to build their own game that she runs at higher stakes than ever before.
When the L.A. game falls to pieces, Molly packs up and head to New York to begin anew, and before long, she’s controlling the kinds of games that gave her book the aforementioned subtitle. Unfortunately, she can’t keep out elements such as people connected to the Russian mob, who were being observed by the FBI, which in turn led them to Molly. Molly’s Game works because Sorkin gives us an extraordinary amount of detail about how Molly started and built her business, using the ruthlessness that her father taught her combined with charm and just enough sex appeal to make the players think they have a shot with her (even though her top rule was not to get involved with the players). That didn’t stop her from becoming friends with a few, and some of the film’s best moments involve a rotating cast of players, including Chris O’Dowd, Jeremy Strong, Justin Kirk, Bill Camp and Brian d’Arcy James.
In fact, one of the strengths of the movie is that it doesn’t saddle Molly with a love interest. Whether that’s because she didn’t have one or it would have only served to distract from the far more interesting story at hand almost doesn’t matter. Instead, Sorkin inherently understands that the only men who influenced and inspired Molly were her family members, beginning with her clinical psychologist father, as well as her brothers, all of whom grew up to be star athletes.
The second half of Molly’s Game is a bit more standard-issue legal drama. Bloom and Jaffey attempt to negotiate for a lighter sentence, even though some self-imposed code of conduct keeps her from naming names. Ultimately, her bust isn’t for running the game (she technically ran a catering and events company that simply hosted games); it was for a combination of questionable financial decisions that made her a target, including possibly being a money launderer for the Russian mob. But when 17 fully armed FBI agents raided her home to arrest her, she was penniless, despite the tabloids, the bureau and others believing she had money stashed somewhere.
The film has a few moments that don’t ring true, in particular a late-in-the-story conversation between Molly and her father about why she started in the poker racket to begin with. It’s a beautifully written exchange that works as a rapid-fire therapy session for Molly, but it feels like a movie scene and not the warm-hearted, father-daughter talk she probably needed in that moment.
More interesting and accessible are the conversations between attorney and client, which are sometimes interrupted by Jaffey’s teen daughter, a model student who is drawn to Molly’s intelligence and style. Still, Molly’s Game is a brisk, energetic, engrossing work, and even in those moments when it isn’t, Chastain keeps things interesting, making it her mission to show that there’s blood in the veins of the Poker Princess.