Molly’s Game

The talented Jessica Chastain had a lot of Oscar buzz after Miss Sloane last year. That disappointing film didn’t bring it, but the steely character she played there is put to perfect use in Aaron Sorkin’s frantically paced dialogue here. It’s also Sorkin’s first time behind the camera. It was a perfect match.

For years, there have been critics of Sorkin’s that say he’s written female characters that can only be saved by men. That may be, but how can you knock somebody for writing fictional stories? Heck, he’s the guy that pushed back hard when the studio felt Demi Moore and Tom Cruise’s characters should’ve slept together in A Few Good Men. And he was right in that instance. And already, I’ve heard a few critics gripe that Chastain’s character isn’t vulnerable enough; or they wonder why she doesn’t have a love interest or a soft side. It seems he can’t win either way, and in adapting the real life story of Molly Bloom, the poker princess, I think Sorkin’s giving you the exact character Brown wanted you to see when she wrote her book. Nothing more. Sure, she has some daddy issues and makes a few bad decisions, but this is a heroine you can root for. Perhaps the only complaint you can have with the script is it’s a bit self-aware.

Molly Bloom almost made the Olympic ski team. Her dad (Kevin Costner) pushed her and her brothers hard, and they had more successful careers on the slopes. Despite being extremely intelligent and doing well in school, she wanted to take a gap year before hitting Harvard law. And as many parents fear when their kids want to take gap years, things went horribly wrong.

Bloom moves to LA and starts working a low paying job for a horrible boss, who also runs a high stakes poker game. He basically tells her she has to work at the game — serving drinks and sandwiches, and keeping track of everything. She isn’t happy, until she sees the tips they’re giving her to do this. That eventually leads to her running higher stakes games (up to a $500,000 buy-in) in L.A. and New York. Problems arise with the Russian mob and the FBI.

The movie is a lot more successful with the Goodfellas vibe than American Made (Tom Cruise) was a few months ago. It bounces seamlessly from the past with her skiing practices and life with her family and overbearing father…as well as the poker games and clientele she was establishing…back to her current conversations with Charles Jaffe, the one honest lawyer in town (Idris Elba).

This film won’t alienate you if you don’t know anything about poker. Just as you could love my favorites: House of Games, The Sting, Cincinnati Kid, Big Hand for the Little Lady, and Rounders…even if you don’t know the difference between three-of-a-kind or a full house; although as a poker player, I can say you’ll probably like the movie a bit more if you play.

So often, people ask me what it is I look for in a movie when rating it. I tell them the most important thing was how entertained I was. When it comes to breaking down what entertains me, there are many things, but it always seems that dialogue trumps everything. And we all know Sorkin has that in spades.

Now, one of the things that makes me dislike movies, are unrealistic scenes. This movie only had a few I didn’t buy. One was a conversation with a character that cleared up a lot of stuff, that I just don’t see those characters doing with each other that way. One of the other complaints I have with this movie is that it needed a little less voice-over and dialogue..

Also, there were a few times Chastain didn’t completely have me sold on her character. Yet those minor complaints are barely a blip on the radar. For example, even in that scene I didn’t like with the two characters, it moved me; just as almost all the scenes with Elba.

In real life, it’s rumoured that Bloom had stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck in her games. In this, it’s Michael Cera playing a huge Hollywood star (credits call him “Player X”). He has the perfect smugness for his cutthroat character. He’s the ace in the hole that helps with the strong pair in the leads. Maybe I wasn’t all in by the end, but it was a fun time at the poker table. See this and you’ll feel like you walked away a winner. And when you gamble with your money going to a movie these days — that’s always a nice feeling.

It just barely made my Top 10 of the year list.

4 stars out of 5.