TIFF FILM REVIEW: Chastain and Sorkin Dealt Aces In Cerebral Thriller MOLLY’S GAME
Poker is not a game of chance, it is a game of skill. So declares the titular Molly Bloom, played with dazzling range by an exquisite Jessica Chastain, in the upcoming film Molly’s Game, which premiered at TIFF over the weekend. Molly is a beautiful, fast-talking, and quick-learning gal who forewent a predisposed life for one of thrills and excitement at the edge of a poker table—until she flew too close to the sun. In the world of the movies, however, luck only gets you so far, and talent really is the name of the game. Thankfully for her, and for us, Chastain and director/screenwriter Aaron Sorkin are brimming with it, making Molly’s Game one of the true gems of the fall movie season.
Young Molly is a determined and intelligent girl, blowing down the snowy hills of Colorado aspiring to be an Olympic skier. An ill-placed pine cone—one meant to remind the perceptive viewer that all life is a game of inches and luck—derails these aspirations, but Molly will not be easily sidetracked. She moves to Los Angeles and soon becomes the assistant at a clandestine (but not illegal) poker game, and she learns to branch out on her own as fast as the cards are flipped over.
Sorkin quickly splices into encounters with Molly in the present time, having learned perhaps from David Fincher, as she is being arrested by a covey of FBI agents in a predawn raid for racketeering in connection to an unexplained, complex mob ring. She soon enlists the help of fast-talking lawyer Charlie Jaffrey, played by Idris Elba, to help with her legal troubles. And although we do not know exactly what she is accused of—a strange position to be in for a movie by someone who has an at times exacting and infatuating obsession with the trappings of our legal system—it does not really matter. We are here for the invective and wit of Sorkin as channeled by Molly and Charlie, delivered through the captivating performances of his lead actors.
Sorkin is arguably the Paddy Chayesfky of our generation, but instead of an issues writer Sorkin is a societal commentator. He has his finger precisely on the pulse of high-flying contemporary suburbanites who drink lattes, use Gmail, and grew up on spreadsheets. He teems with self-importance, but you permit it to him because his insights are that powerful and revealing. Molly offers, like a disciple of Mark Zuckeberg (The Social Network) or Billy Beane (Moneyball), witty observations about Freud, strange but captivating statistics about sports, weights, and measurements, and catchy nicknames for the colorful characters she encounters in her poker den.
The comparison to Sorkin’s other troubled anti-heroes is not nearly as superficial as the foregoing would suggest. Molly is as interesting and layered a character as all of those men and, though she plays her sexuality and her sensuality as one of the cards up her sleevve, she can hold ‘em with any of the guys and be as tough as nails, while also revering in her mother-like instincts at protecting some of the dredges of the scum that make their way through her makeshift casino.
Molly’s Game is wonderful because it represents a landmark for its two main stars—Sorkin coming into his own as a director for the first time without abandoning his sardonic wit as a writer, and Chastain for distilling several characters she has played before with much more aplomb, sarcasm, and integrity than she had, without ever needing to resort to that “Oscar moment” to deliver. The movie takes us along for an enjoyable ride where you wonder not just what card will be turned next, but what character and what anecdote will take us from the flop to the river and who will lose an all-in bet in the process, literally. Molly encounters a bevy of colorful and at times pathetic characters. There is the movie superstar she calls Player X (Michael Cera), first an ally then a deadly foe. There is Chris O’Dowd as a hapless drunk and Brian d’Arcy Adams as a half-wit player the butt of others jokes. They all come in and out of her web but it is not always clear who is the spider and who is the prey. Quickly she is in over her head addicted to pills and in dangerous positions of debt.
And last but not least there is Kevin Costner as Molly’s overbearing, overachieving, and over-demanding father. It may be easy to collapse into thinking that Molly’s toughness is born out of daddy issues, but Sorkin and Chastain resist such an easy out. Molly openly acknowledges that being pushed is what made her pushy, and that being challenged is what made her successful even in her downfall. Sorkin knows when to fold the relationship between the two without overextending it into a clichéd father-daughter psychoanalysis that would have taken it into rote sentimentality.
The film moves along easily between depositions, courtroom scenes, bar brawls, and crazy poker hands. It speeds up and slows down as needed, always holding the nuts even if you may see where the turn is headed. If you find Sorkin speak captivating, you will be gripped by this adventure, and will respect the circular trick of the moral behind the story.
Aptly, cleverly, and with a mound of self-awareness, Molly at one point compares herself to the Greek goddess Circe, a magical nymph who tricked men, enchanted them, and then turned them into swine. A confused, perhaps antiquated player promises Molly—who also, by the way, exhibits little interest in love or other men—that he will not treat her that way. Of course the joke is on him, for this is all under the control of a rough and tumble, tough-as-nails gal who will play with all the boys from the wolves on Wall Street to the goodfellas. It is, in essence, a companion piece to the other movie that premiered at TIFF, I, Tonya. The two really are parallel stories, even if Molly is the sophisticated one.
And the Circe joke is also on you, by the way, if you do not figure out that this is not a fool’s game, it is not a little boy’s game, it really is Molly’s Game, with fantastic Jessica Chastain and Aaron Sorkin in the driver’s seat.