“Molly’s Game” is a redemption song about the slippery (ski) slope, the easy wrong versus the difficult right, and after arriving at the bottom of a moral mogul-run, discovering that the chairlift of truthfulness and integrity will get you back up the mountain.
No, it’s not a ski movie. It’s about erstwhile Olympic mogul skier Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), whose boot exited her binding on an aerial ramp, resulting in a near-fatal crash and shattering her Olympic dreams. She goes on to run two of the most lucrative underground poker games, ever, eventually running afoul of two different types of mafia, plus the FBI.
True story. Molly’s essentially a good, well-adjusted person, so why all this craziness? It’s a stellar showcasing of how the sins of the father become a direct detrimental force in a child’s life.
After the backstory of the overbearing dad and ski coach (Kevin Costner), we fast-forward to Molly getting cuffed by the FBI. She’d felt a need to eventually become a lawyer, but her dark-side detour results, instead, in a need to retain a lawyer.
Cue razor-sharp attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). Charlie plays hard to get; he doesn’t want her messy legal situation, but Molly’s a go-getter and a formidable man-manipulator. Her extreme due diligence and man’s-world savvy prove too much for Jaffey to resist. He perceives in her an untrained, ultratalented member of his own elite lawyer tribe, and he desires to fix the broken wing and teach the brilliant student.
Ultimately, it’s her bright, quintessentially good core that he can’t say no to; he can see in her the same morals and work ethic he’s trying to instill in his own daughter. Suffice it to say, it’s a delicious onscreen chemistry.
Their trial preparation flashes back to Molly’s post-Olympic gofer-secretary phase, and then to her eventual infiltration of the rarified world of backroom poker-table millionaires, providing psych profiles of this cutthroat card crew.
“Player X” (Michael Cera) is a movie star who enjoys ruining people’s lives with his superior skills. He’s apparently a mash-up of at least two well-known Hollywood players at Molly’s table.
Speaking of which, Cera comes dangerously close to doing a Toby Maguire impression, which is more than a little disturbing. You think, “But Toby seems like such a nice young man!” Hollywood, like Wall Street, is a shark tank—most who can swim in those murky waters and endure, are killers (not literally).
However, while it’s a distinctively non-knightly roundtable of masculine power, the real power here is the behind-the-scenes feminine version. It’s the yin-trumps-yang version; that is, Molly and her all-female hostess-waitress-dealer crew, hiding in plain sight, with feigned gratitude for massive tips, sham submissive posturing, and calculated conning of macho-man windbaggery with lipstick, cleavage, and flattery. It’s Molly’s game, after all.
But Player X eventually stabs Molly in the back—again, a disturbing revelation. He steals her West Coast game, thereby triggering her formidable survivor instincts, resulting in a new, East Coast game where the players are even wealthier. And unfortunately more dangerous.
Too Long but You Won’t Care
Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network,” “Moneyball”) wrote “Molly,” and it’s also his directorial debut. But while the movie’s definitely too long, it moves at a crackling pace due to Sorkin’s rapid-fire script, the card table tension, and especially the tension between Molly and Jaffey.
Jaffey needs all the details of Molly’s life to keep her out of the slammer, but by now she’s got a poker-faced inscrutability running in her veins like life’s blood, and makes him work for every revelation. It’s like watching a master fly fisherman working a huge, uncommonly tricky trout that needs catching, for it’s own good, before the river gets poisoned.
After a couple of Appletini-ordering Mafia goombas offer Molly “protection” that she breezily dismisses, along with the predictable, devastating follow-up that she should have seen coming, her dad, the psychologist, circles back into her life.
He gives her an impromptu, fast-tracked counseling session that reveals the source of her rebelliousness and deep distrust of him, and men in general. It’s quite a stunning (and satisfying) revelation, as this question will have sat in your subconscious for the entire movie, with question marks circling it like a merry-go-round.
The Best Part
The best thing about the movie is that Aaron Sorkin, like his contemporary David Mamet, has a unique dialogue style that not all actors are capable of rendering realistically. Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are the Sorkin version of Alec Baldwin, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, et al., knocking Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” out of the park.
This one you’ll take home with you, and you’ll examine your life for possible ancestral sins that conspired to throw your life off track. “Molly’s Game” features 2018’s best monologue by an actor in a major motion picture (Idris Elba, defending Molly’s morals in a backroom-deal scene with the FBI). It has lots in common with at least two other great voiceover-heavy, illicit-gambling movies (“Rounders,” “Casino”) and will rivet you from start gate to finish line.
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Rated: R (for violence, nudity, and language)
Release Date: Jan. 5
Rated 4 stars out of 5