After suffering a horrific accident at a national skiing contest, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) gives up her Olympic dreams and moves to LA. While working as a cocktail waitress she meets arrogant real estate agent Dean (Jeremy Strong), and agrees to become his assistant.
Her duties include setting up his lucrative weekly poker game, which hosts some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Soon she has cut Dean loose, and is hosting huge stake matches in Los Angeles and New York. As her own personal fortune increases so does the attentions of the IRS and the criminal underworld towards her and her game.
Director and co-writer Aaron Sorkin starts the film well, with a well executed and wince-inducing freestyle skiing sequence. From here we are in LA, and the poker sequences are fluid and engrossing in a Goodfellas style that is indebted to Scorsese without being derivative in a manner of American Hustle. There is plenty of fluid camera movement and excellent visualizations of poker hands, and Sorkin is able to use simple things like shot-reverse shot in a creative manner. Sorkin has added some electricity to this most unfilmable of sports, showing Rounders how it should be done.
Jessica Chastain looks phenomenal throughout, and credit should be given to a costume department that varies a wide range of stunning outfits. It’s clear she dominates the room and hypnotizes these powerful men, whose extravagance and indifference to extreme wealth is intoxicating to watch (a highlight is when one player tries to leave a Monet as collateral).
Bill Camp puts in a great performance as Harlan Eustice, a seemingly competent poker player who starts to feel the heat. Stealing the pot is Player X as played by Michael Cera. Here he is using his youthful demeanour as a mask for a wicked personality, his most malevolent role since Francois of Youth In Revolt.
This is a first directorial effort of prolific screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and it is with a certain irony that one of the weakest elements to Molly’s Game is the script. There is an undue focus on voiceover and an only fleetingly involving legal case in which Molly is wrapped up in years after her stint as a hostess has ended.
The real high stakes finale happens as Molly’s empire starts to crumble. That an audience is left with a resolution filled with hokey courtroom drama and cloying family moments between her and her father (Kevin Costner) afterwards dulls the film. Sorkin seems to have made the same mistake as co-writer, the real-life Molly Bloom; thinking that being in an interesting environment makes you an interesting person outside of it.
Another key difference between Sorkin here and Scorsese’s best work is the score. It is ordinary throughout Molly’s Game, except in the legal cases when it is also bogged down by dull, obvious cues. While Molly’s account of a poker world few of us have seen before captivate regardless, the music is another dud element in repetitive legal scenes.
What was amusing is that Molly’s lawyers are played by Michael Kostroff who starred in The Wire as lawyer Maurice Levy, and Idris Elba who was drug lord and wannabe businessman Stringer Bell in the same series. This footnote aside, I found nothing of particular interest in this chunk of the plot, which leaves the whole work dangerously close to a flop.