2017, R, 140 min. Directed by Aaron Sorkin. Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O'Dowd, Brian d'Arcy James.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Dec. 22, 2017
I cannot count the times I have gotten into a discussion (read: argument) with my significant other about the use of voiceovers in cinema. For the record: She hates them. “Show, don’t tell,” is the mantra of every community college teacher in that Screenwriting 101 course. But done right, a narration can enhance the story and provide a bit of information quickly without bogging down any momentum a film might be running on. She sees it as a cheat, but I see it – when done properly – as a way to enrich a story, to provide that direct address to the viewer that often makes the film more intimate. Which is as good an introduction as any to Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut.
Based on the 2014 memoir by Molly Bloom, in which she recounts her rise and fall as a runner of high-stakes poker games in the late Aughts, Sorkin seems to have basically taken that book, reformatted it into a screenplay, and filmed it. Bloom (Chastain), a highly ranked competitive skier who had a heartbreaking mishap, moves to Los Angeles and falls in with a real estate agent, Dean Keith (Strong), who also moonlights hosting poker games for the rich and famous. Bloom slowly becomes more involved in the proceedings, a neophyte to the game who is Googling poker terms at a table nearby as she hears them during the late-night games. Fiercely intelligent and a quick study, she soon takes over these games (you can tell she’s on the rise when she replaces her PC laptop with a Mac). Eventually falling out with Dean, she moves the games to New York City, and ultimately, that leads to her arrest. She gets tied up in a large investigation involving money laundering, the Russian mafia, hedge-fund managers, and A-list celebrities never named (Michael Cera hilariously stars as “Player X,” a composite for a number of high-profile actors who circled around Bloom). Her rise is intercut with her fall and trial, and those scenes involving her reticent lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Elba, using a weird accent), are quirky and quick, with references ranging from The Crucible to The Big Lebowski.
You know you’re in Sorkin country when a story unfolds with rapid-fire dialogue squeezed between passionate monologues (my favorite: Jaffey’s “box of Wheaties” speech). But the main draw here, besides the nature of the high-stakes poker milieu, is Jessica Chastain. A fiercely intelligent actor who is only getting better, she imbues Bloom with an unsinkable drive as she continually navigates this “frat house built for degenerates,” a boys club that tries to undermine her at every step. The gender politics may be a little reductive, but Sorkin knows his craft well, and it’s weird that this is his first time in the director’s chair. But overall, Molly’s Game is a crackerjack, quintessential holiday movie. Smart, engaging, and full of great performances, sometimes telling is the way to go.