In the late season push to make the awards season deadline, there has been a mix of holiday season drivel, fun distractions and high caliber contenders. If you have the time (and patience) to sift through the chaos, you can find some films that are fulfilling on multiple levels. Such is the case with Molly’s Game. While it was released on Christmas day, it doesn’t fall into the holiday genre but still manages to be a great deal of fun.
If you’re unaware of this story, as I was, it’s the tale of Molly Bloom. A talented skier and Olympic hopeful, she changes her life’s trajectory and winds up running a high-stakes poker game for the very rich and sometimes famous. Along the way, she butts heads with her competitors and gets involved with the Russian mob before finding herself under federal indictment.
Aaron Sorkin has written some wonderful screenplays over the years and he adapted a very enjoyable one from Molly’s book. However, it’s moderately over-written and too long on the front end. This is rare because it’s hard for the beginning of a movie to be too long (think Man of Steel). It’s just overly explanatory. And because of Sorkin’s decision to tell this story over three separate timelines, the overall product is slightly diluted by an over indulgence in voiceover monologuing. As a first time director, he did a great job and showed a tremendous amount of promise. There’s no doubt he’ll go on to make more enjoyable films beyond this. Along with Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography work, the visual storytelling was one of the film’s strongest elements, which made the overindulgence of voiceovers even more of an odd fit. I understand that much of what makes the film work is glimpsing Molly’s life, so some narration goes a long way, but it occasionally felt like too much of a good thing. Sorkin combined his patented style of scintillating dialogue with the gritty poker world of Rounders, while the structure of the film was strikingly similar to Miss Sloane (2016). The writer/director could find himself nominated in both categories when the Academy reveals its list in late January.
When casting Jessica Chastain as your lead, it’s a safe bet that she isn’t going to mess it up. Once again, she was excellent in the lead as Molly and made cheering for her, not only, easy and enjoyable, but vindicating as well. This is captivating and interesting story, with an unbelievably charismatic figure at the center of it all and Chastain is dynamic in that capacity. It was really nice to see a woman in a position of power just straight hustlin’ and making money hand over fist like so many idols from mafia films throughout the years. Kicking ass and taking names. It was never just that she was getting paid. She stood her ground…at every turn. In spite of her weakness and hubris, she always demonstrated integrity. Watching her fight so hard for herself, it’s really tough to not want to fight for her as well. This was very strong performance that, in many years, could earn her Best Actress honors at the Academy Awards. However, it’s a very tough field this year and, while she should absolutely get nominated, Chastain will likely find herself behind both Frances McDormand and Sally Hawkins.
Her chemistry with Idris Elba was strong, and his performance does well to give her a position to plead her case. The dialogue between the two is fast and smart (like we’ve come to expect from Sorkin), while conveying a great deal of information but still maintaining a wry sense of humor. As her attorney, Charlie Jaffey, the journey belongs to him just as much. After initially refusing to represent Ms. Bloom, he embarks on a long process of discovery which culminates with an impassioned speech which should easily go down in the annals of courtroom dramas. It was certainly the most impactful moment in the film and serves as further evidence that Elba has arrived as a long overdue star.
Francine Maisler was at it again, casting a strong and diverse group of actors to sharpen an already keen cast. Michael Cera has to take top billing, so-to-speak, in the role of Mr. X which was a vast departure for him. The trailer kind of just uses his face and the allusion of A-list celebrity but doesn’t reveal anything about his character. Well, it turned out to be a bait and switch. Mr. X is an asshole and more than happy to try and ruin Molly when he doesn’t get his way. Cera played the position surprisingly well and will have audiences wondering which real life celebrity Mr. X might be.
Kevin Costner has the crucial role of Molly’s father, Larry. Costner has settled in as a reliable dad-brand and his cadence and delivery carry wisdom and condescension, but you can still tell there’s love there. He’s tough on his kids, especially his only daughter. He and Molly argue frequently about basically everything, but it helped shape her into the character we are cheering for. He and Chastain don’t share the screen often but have good enough rapport to make the relationship work and payoff when it’s on the line. As everything comes full circle, the two share an awkward father-daughter therapy session which drags their entire history to the foreground and shines some light on Molly and her choices. I won’t delve into it, but this article addresses how her story is still very much about men…complete with daddy issues, despite all she had accomplished. Nonetheless, it’s still a remarkable story and there is something about watching that high stakes world which is riveting.
On the back of a wonderful story, Molly’s Game made its presence felt on Christmas. This was one of the better films of the year, although I’m not exactly sure where it falls in that mix. Depending on how many films the Academy decides to include, this could make the short list of Best Picture candidates. Word of mouth should do it some favors down the stretch, as this was one of several films that opted for a limited early release. You can see Molly Bloom’s incredible story nationwide on January 12th.
Recommendation: Thoroughly enjoyable, see it. It’s more contemporary than some of its limited release counterparts and certainly not as slow. While it’s rated R, that seems like more of a precaution. There’s no nudity, although Chastain’s ample bosom is almost always on full display and there’s profanity that’s not egregious. Don’t fear the MPAA rating.