Poker players collectively roll their eyes when a new “poker” movie is released, because the subject matter usually fails to translate to the big screen. Poker movies often exaggerate features of the game, which renders them caricatures of poker for anybody who knows better.
Molly’s Game is no caricature.
While there are some decent poker flicks—Rounders (1998) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965) come to mind—there are some truly horrendous ones, such as All-In (2006), Lucky You (2006), and Deal (2008), which are plagued by stilted acting and superficial storylines.
Molly’s Game (2017), by contrast, is well-scripted, intriguing, and a superbly acted film. While poker is an essential part of its premise, this film is more a character study of the very interesting Molly Bloom.
Molly’s Game: Inception
This crime drama, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, is based on the true story of Molly Bloom, as detailed in her memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker. The memoir details Molly’s rise and fall from skier to poker princess.
The cast of Molly’s Game includes:
- The incredibly talented Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom
- Idris Elba as Bloom’s attorney Charlie Jaffey
- Kevin Costner as Bloom’s overbearing father
- And other strong actors in various roles including Michael Cera, Chris O’Dowd, Graham Greene, Jeremy Strong, Bill Camp, J.C. MacKenzie, and Brian d’Arcy James.
Chastain demonstrates once again why she is among the most talented and established young actresses working today. And many—myself included—rank this performance among her best, for which she was honored with a Golden Globe nomination, and will likely receive an Oscar nod to boot. In fact, Molly Bloom, herself, told Sorkin that she wanted Chastain to play her in the film.
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Note: This Molly’s Game review contains spoilers.
Molly’s Game plot
The central premise of the story is Bloom’s life. The film details her early life in Loveland, Colorado, as a world-class skier hoping to make the Olympics but who suffers a career-ending injury.
Molly then moves to Los Angeles before taking on her goal of enrolling in law school and finds herself working for a not-so-nice guy (Strong), who informs her that she will be assisting with his weekly underground poker game. Not quite knowing the game, the uber-intelligent Bloom learns all that she can by observing the games and Googling poker terms. Soon enough, the student overtakes the master and, well, the rest is history.
Eventually, Bloom starts her own exclusive, high-stakes underground game that attracts Hollywood royalty, business tycoons, professional athletes, and even—unbeknownst to her at the time—the Russian mob. After a dangerous run-in with a mobster, she “crosses the line” and takes a rake to protect herself financially. Bloom then becomes the target of an FBI investigation, is arrested by 17 armed agents in the middle of the night, indicted, has her money seized, and, understandably, begins to worry about her future.
Through her trials and tribulations, however, Chastain’s Bloom maintains her integrity and composure, exudes intelligence and humanity, discovers humility, and does it all beautifully. Elba’s Jaffey is equally interesting and likable, and this is, perhaps, one of his finest performances as well.
Of particular interest is that the titular book was not actually written until after her court case concluded, yet it remains a central player in the movie.
Poker realism in Molly’s Game
While not a poker movie per se, Molly’s Game revolves around the game, and there are several scenes of realistic play thanks to dozens of actual professional poker players who Sorkin cast to inject “gritty realism” into the film. The poker scenes are frenetic and entertaining, and Chastain’s voice-over narration interspersed throughout increases their impact.
Among those actors central to the poker scenes is Michael Cera’s “Player X” (believed to be based on Tobey Maguire with some Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Leonardo DiCaprio thrown in for good measure).
Cera dives into his role with an unusual wickedness that is a far departure from his beloved roles in Juno (2007) and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010). O’Dowd has a key role as a player who is the catalyst for Bloom’s difficulties, while Camp and D’Arcy James play crucial characters central to the plot development.
According to IMDB, the pros and actors would play poker between scenes and, as would be expected, the pros ended up being among the most highly paid individuals on the set.
The bottom line
Molly’s Game is an intriguing watch. Bloom’s rise from cynical athlete to poker princess is brought to life by Chastain who plays the part with conviction and finesse. Her portrayal demonstrates Bloom’s humanity, intelligence, wit, and beauty, and the film does not feel like its nearly two-and-one-half-hour running time.
It is obvious, however, that this story has been embellished for dramatic effect—“Hollywood-ized,” if you will. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Chastain’s narration combines with action to present a very well-written, nobly directed, and incredibly acted vehicle.
Where the film devolves a bit is the third act. Two scenes in particular detract from the intriguing and well-paced first two acts. The first is Bloom’s “chance” encounter with her estranged father (Costner) at a New York City outdoor ice skating rink. Being an acclaimed psychologist and professor, he, of course, has a heart-to-heart therapy session with his daughter who never quite felt good enough when compared to her equally overachieving brothers. After some cynicism—and tears (and, yes, being the sap that I am, I did cry a little)—father and daughter reconcile and all seems conveniently right with the world.
The other minor transgression involves the courtroom scenes. Here, Graham Greene plays the sympathetic judge who doesn’t see Bloom as the offender the prosecutors are trying vehemently to prosecute; however, these scenes make me wonder if Sorkin was simply rushing for a feel-good resolution as time was ticking.
Regardless, these minor shortcomings do little to diminish an otherwise excellent film. Take a look at the Molly’s Game trailer here.
As of January 11, 2018, Molly’s Game had grossed $16.8 million in the U.S. and Canada. Along with other countries, the film has taken in nearly $22 million worldwide.
Have you seen Molly’s Game?
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