Brian d'Arcy James
2 Hrs., 21 Mins.
Molly's Game June 4, 2018
ven in childhood, the no-nonsense “poker princess” Molly Bloom detested conformity. She considered marriage a trap and society a joke. No point in having personal heroes, either. Why abide by tiresome cultural standards, and why try to mold yourself after another, when making a life for yourself, on your own terms, isn’t impossible?
Bloom, now 40, can comfortably say that she’s lived unconventionally. For one part of her adult life, she was an aspirant Olympic skier; for the other, she became, perhaps happenstantially, the mastermind behind,
in her words, the most exclusive, high-stakes underground poker game in the world. By her mid-20s, she was a multimillionaire. Past 30, she was little more than a quondam criminal desperate to put her past behind her.
Bloom’s life, ever-melodramatic, is cinematic in itself, to say the least. So I’d say there eventually being a movie based upon her life became an inevitability the moment she decided to unofficially become the first lady of poker. Or maybe it was sealed, in 2014, when she released a 272-page memoir.
The ineluctable feature which turns Bloom into its protagonist, Molly’s Game (2017), is fortunately as sophisticated, razor-sharp, and high-powered as its subject. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, and starring Jessica Chastain, the high priestess of the monologue, it is a tantalizing 141-minute spectacle that as much reaps the benefits of the thrills put forward by its high-stakes poker games and shady characters as it does multidimensionally draw its heroine, whose persona has always preceded her.
Though slightly overlong, Molly’s Game, as most of Sorkin’s other movies do, moves about rapidly, and never loosens its grip or loses its stamina. For the entirety of its two-and-a-half-hour running time, the film pingpongs back and forth between two storylines: One set in 2014, right when Bloom saw her past legally catching up with her, the other set when Bloom got into the gambling racket, detailing her meteoric, albeit clandestine, rise and fall.
Memorable supporting players, all of whom keep up with Sorkin’s breakneck, loquacious screenplay and Chastain’s stormy resolve, stipple the scenery. Michael Cera, in a villainous turn, chews the scenery as Player X, a masochistic celebrity who wilily terrorized most of Bloom’s games in her heyday. (X is said to be based on Tobey Maguire, who apparently liked poker because he enjoyed seeing other men suffer.) Great, too, are Idris Elba as Bloom’s incisive lawyer and Kevin Costner, in a small but strikingly performed role, as her father.
Sorkin constructs these clashing worlds with impressive ease. The earlier storyline, which is centered around Bloom’s noughties, is a fête defined by 007-esque glam danger, the decadence as protuberant as greed and the ever-creeping sense of doom. (We can easily understand why Bloom was so simultaneously enthralled and disgusted by this underground world.) The later storyline is far humbler: The colors downcast and the ambient highs of monetary possibility gone, we can sense Bloom’s regret swimming about. But we’re also infatuated by the repartee between her and Elba’s Charlie: they have a habit of sizing the other down via crackling monologues, like Faye Dunaway and Bill Holden in Network (1976). Though this, of course, manages to up their ability to work together cohesively.
Everything clicks, save for the way a pair of pivotal scenes — the courtroom climax and a years-in-the-making confrontation with Bloom’s father — are led, respectively, by Elba and Costner. But why not let Chastain have the last word? Also detrimental, as is the case with so much of what Sorkin puts out, is the hyperstylization of it all: Because characters generally talk and act more like Sorkin Creations™ than they do people (sometimes, however, they come close), the film is never quite as emotionally bracing as it is intellectually so.
Even then, Molly’s Game is a major thrill, buttressed by how perfectly matched Sorkin and Chastain are. Hopefully this won’t be the last of their collaborations. And hopefully Bloom, who remains so admirable and strangely enigmatic even after we’ve watched a movie’s worth of what we’re supposed to believe is an encapsulation of her essence, thinks this movie does her right. B+