It was called one of the best films of the year in 2017 as a limited release, but now that it’s been released to a wider audience Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut “Molly’s Game” is living up to that label as one of the first great films of 2018. Based heavily on the memoir of former attempted Olympian and so-called “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom this biographical crime drama film packs humor, suspense, and high stakes intensity to create a fully engaging cinematic experience worthy of its talented cast and exceptional director. Let take a closer look shall we. Here is my review of “Molly’s Game”.
For this review I have employed a new approach for 2018, one similar to many reviews I’ve seen lately on blogs like this. For my reviews from here on out I will examine what the film is about, what made it good, what made it bad, the acting, the direction and other factors on my way to my conclusion and normal grading. Let me know what you think of the new format below and enjoy the review.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
“Molly Game” stars Jessica Chastain in the titular role as Molly who narrates much of the film as if she was reading from her actual book. In the present Molly is arrested by the FBI due to her past as a poker princess and her connection to the Russian mob. She employs lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to help her avoid prison time and, in the process, divulges her story to both Jaffey and the viewers. Bloom is shown to have suffered a career ending injury in her attempts to qualify for the Olympics in freestyle skiing and afterwards learned of the game of poker through an employer. Her ability to retain knowledge and use her looks and brain to her advantage allows her to start her own games, hosting a slew of powerful figures including athletes and actors, eventually leading to her legacy as a Poker Princess. In the film’s present time we see Molly fight for her freedom while trying to preserve what little she has left in her life outside of prison walls.
The performances in “Molly’s Game” are top notch, for the most part, with the main roles of Molly and Charlie being portrayed by two of the best in modern cinema, Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba. Chastain brings attitude and confidence to Molly Bloom, but never feels so overconfident that she seems untouchable. Molly, being the central figure in this story, is a very complex woman. She’s a take-charge kind of person but also very aware of her surroundings and while we are spoon fed her character arc through narration Chastain does a fine job presenting Molly’s transformation from confident by-the-book poker dealer to drug addicted and self-serving game boss. Chastain is absolutely captivating in this role especially since she has to portray a younger and older Molly and maintain a consistent character presentation through shifting timelines. The irony is the more Molly grows the worse she gets as a responsible person and this all plays into her lack of a true childhood. It’s quite fascinating.
Chastain is teamed with Idris Elba, who portrays Molly’s lawyer Charlie, in the film’s present day and the chemistry between these two actors is absolutely the best part of this entire film. From their playful banter back and forth to their individual portrayals of their based-on-real-life characters both Elba and Chastain shine bright throughout this entertaining film. They share amazing natural chemistry that feels like we’re watching a true back and forth between a lawyer and client. It’s packed with intensity, heart, and uncompromising honesty from both players making this among the best of these two powerhouse actors’ individual performances in their respective careers.
The one acting role I felt was out of place was Michael Cera who portrays Player X, a cinematic amalgamation of players like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire who were real-life movie stars mentioned to have played Molly’s games in her book. While Cera’s character is complex I feel like Cera was miscast for this role. Even though he tries to inject attitude into his performance of a celebrity who turns on Molly at the height of her success Cera as a person is hard to take seriously in such a role and he doesn’t really bring as much personality and attitude to the table as this character truly called for. Now considering many believe his performance is most prominently based on Tobey Maguire, who himself is unintimidating in his own way, this portrayal could have very well have fit but, of all the performances in the film I felt like Cera’s was the one most lacking and out of place.
For those unfamiliar with Aaron Sorkin, who wrote and directed this film in his big-screen directorial debut, Sorkin is the mind behind some amazing works including “The Newsroom”, “A Few Good Men” and “The Social Network” as well as the much beloved political drama “The West Wing”. This is the first time he was behind the camera for one of his cinematic ventures however and we see some very Sorkin-esque themes in the movie as well as the writer’s typical talent for character-on-character banter and dialogue. For his first time behind the camera Sorkin delivers a gripping story that is well paced and seamlessly shifts between time periods in Molly’s life as if she herself was telling us the story. Sorkin makes some very interesting stylistic choices, at times allowing the film to bend the boundaries of drama, comedy, and crime caper and manages to not only embrace but meld these genres together into a nice package.
Most of all though Sorkin makes this story interesting. For a biopic about a card game this film managed to be intriguing and exciting while doing very little more than literally telling us a story. That is due in very large part to Sorkin’s ability to drive a scene forward using dialogue, transitions, and smoothly written exposition that feels both natural and necessary. If this is the kind of work we can expect from Sorkin behind the camera then its clear his talent for storytelling is not just on the page and I can’t wait to see more from him behind the camera.
“Molly’s Game” had a lot going for it considering the names behind of and in front of the camera, but none of that mattered without an enjoyable story and while this film’s plot isn’t the most exciting one in the world it is one that keeps you glued to the screen in its own way. The good thing is you don’t have to know ANYTHING about poker coming into the film. While there are times where terminology is thrown around quite quickly we get moments where Molly, seemingly understanding her viewers or readers might not be familiar with the terms, explains what the lingo mean and how each term is good or bad.
While this is garden variety exposition it’s exposition justified by the format of the narrative, Molly reading us her book, making an otherwise flawed aspect of any film perfectly acceptable here. To achieve this end “Molly’s Game” also takes advantage of creative license in all the right ways, choosing to use Molly’s real-life book as a plot devise even though it was released after the events of her courtroom drama which is also shown in this cinematic story. Creative changes within a biographical story are inevitable, but “Molly’s Game” shows that these changes can be very acceptable if they play into the movie’s presentation properly.
As I said the chemistry and performances of (most) of the actors in this film are also to be commended as everyone truly owns their place in the story. Noone feels shoehorned in and no one feels unwarranted. Every character feels like they belong, and every player has a different personality and demon that allows us more knowledge of who Molly was as a person as well as who she had to manage when she was watching the table.
Probably the film’s most shining achievement though is its ability to keep you attentive and engrossed in the action despite being spoon-fed the story through narration even possibly being unfamiliar with the game that drives the plot. It’s just a fun story to watch with a lead character we can’t help by route for, or even relate to in our own way. What could have been an insanely boring concept somehow becomes an absolutely hypnotizing story with so many twists, turns, and anxious moments that you’d think you were a player at the table with how high the stakes tend to be. This is all a compliment to the captivating performances and talented directing and writing I already touched on, but it can’t be praised enough.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
I already touched on Michael Cera’s out of place position in this film, but one other aspect of the story didn’t quite sit well with me and that was the family dynamic. While Molly’s relationship with her father did play a big part in her early years and her character arc the film kind of forces Larry Bloom into the picture, including a pretty unneeded moment that waters down everything we learned about Molly to that point. Her relationship with her father, shown in both present day and flashbacks, does make some pretty bold statements about her mindset and motivations, but in the end much of this drama felt a bit forced and underdeveloped especially when the revelations brought on by her interactions with her father either diluted her character traits or forced some revelation that seemed to be inevitable with or without Mr. Bloom in the picture. Sadly it’s not even the best performance by Kevin Costner, who portrays Larry Bloom in the film, making it feel like a worthy actor was wasted on a plot devise that, while required, could have been handled so much better. It wasn’t nearly enough to damage the film’s overall quality, and it did offer some closure to some of Molly’s story, but in the end there were better ways to allow Molly to progress as a character in my opinion than having her dwell in her father. In fact we saw many example of better ways earlier in the film. Sure this might reflect reality, but considering the creative license taken with other aspects of the film to great effect it puzzled me that this was the aspect of her life that stayed intact to some degree and, in doing so, wasn’t really handled as smoothly as the rest of the story.
Despite its flaws, which admittedly were few and far between unless you were nitpicking or just hated poker in general “Molly’s Game” is an exceptional film that takes an otherwise dry story and makes it an entertaining ride. Packing some great performances by a talented cast and an amazing script by director Aaron Sorkin, “Molly’s Game” is the first great film of 2018…and we’re just getting started! It’s the kind of film that packs enough charm, charisma, and entertainment value in its presentation alone that it’s worth rewatching over and over again and even if you’re unfamiliar with the game that serves as its most important plot tool you’ll find this film is still as engrossing and gripping as it promised to be. It rises above it’s lesser moments to become something much greater than it deserved to become really. In terms of poker, this film holds the winning hand…I’d say a full house!…..ok, sorry, I’m done now…