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Molly’s Game a triumph for Chastain, a modest debut for Sorkin

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Molly’s Game a triumph for Chastain, a modest debut for Sorkin

It’s felt for awhile now that Jessica Chastain was meant to act Aaron Sorkin’s words. Chastain has made her career on playing the kind of strong, intelligent, dynamic woman Sorkin has traditionally written into his scripts. Chastain chews up and spits out mile-a-minute dialogue better than just about anyone in Hollywood today.

Her turn as a high-powered, workaholic lobbyist in “Miss Sloane” felt in a lot of ways like it could have been a Sorkin production–it wasn’t but it had the kind of politically-charged monologues and blitzkrieg exchanges that made The West Wing so great.

The difference between “Molly’s Game” and “Miss Sloane” comes down to the gravity of the scripts and the quality of the supporting cast. Miss Sloane told a tale of the titular character’s Machiavellian plotting to pass gun control all at what seemed to be the cost of her highly-coveted career and found her telling her story from a position of weakness and defeat. The cast included some of my favorites including Alison Pill, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mark Strong, Michael Stuhlbarg and Sam Waterston.

Molly’s Game starts from a similar position–with Molly Bloom, a former world-class skier turned underground celebrity poker game host, trying to convince her lawyer Charlie Jaffey, played by the excellent Idris Elba, that her case is worth taking on. The supporting cast is thin.

Sorkin in his directorial debut effectively handicaps himself from the start with his script. He starts having to convince the audience that Bloom is a worthy subject. It’s not an enviable position.

Bloom is a real woman who wrote a book about her exploits running the game and was then caught up in a government sting. She refused to rat on the folks at her games and therefore faced a long sentence.

Sorkin creates Jaffe (Elba’s character) as a sounding post for Bloom’s worthiness as a role model or a hero and he spends the rest of the movie trying to do just that. Centering the film on this woman’s worth, rather than her adventure, is nearly a fatal flaw.

Bloom, who in real life, didn’t write her tell-some book until after the trial, has written that book before her trial in Sorkin’s telling. Jaffe attempts to reconcile the book with Bloom’s real version of events. We bounce around through time: the athletic career Bloom’s father (played by Kevin Costner) pushes on her, her tortured relationship with her dad, her sympathy for her mom and her decision to postpone law school to work for a connected Hollywood operator.

The operator, an amazing prick played by Jeremy Strong, tasks her with organizing high-stakes poker game for Hollywood big shots, sports figures, and politicians. Bloom is dazzled by the cash and the influence. She makes her life about the game only to have it ripped unfairly from her first by her boss, and then by Player X (a surprisingly low key Michael Cera) who according to hints in Bloom’s book and other Hollywood gossip was actually Tobey Maguire. Cera’s casting is a bit of genius and an FU to the former Spider-Man.

Watching Chastain babysit her various players, outwit them, and in-the-end barely tolerate them is a hoot. Her sparring sessions with Elba are absolutely enthralling. And yet, the stakes seem so low that it’s hard to get worked up about much, until the very end of the film when it is almost entirely too late.

We’re supposed to believe Chastain eventually gets lost in drugs and booze which makes her miss the fact that she’s allowed the Russian mob into her game. But her acting is so entirely crisp and coherent that it’s hard to buy. Elba is further tasked with communicating just how unfair government prosecutors are being by seizing Bloom’s bank account and pressing her for details on the mob. He does so well in a commanding monologue. But it’s Chastain’s interaction with Elba’s character’s daughter that cut the heart of the matter. In an early scene, Bloom notices Jaffe’s daughter reading “The Crucible.”
“Do you know how many witches were burnt in Salem?” she asks.
“How many?” asks the daughter.
“None. They didn’t burn witches, it’s a myth. They hanged them,” responds Bloom.

A deus ex machina involving Costner that grants Bloom instant clarity is also a bit hard to swallow. In the end, it’s impossible not to like Molly’s Game. A more inspired supporting cast could have helped better realize the world Molly lives in. As it stands, Chastain and Elba are left carrying 2 hours and 20 minutes of a film that could have easily come in an hour shorter. Both of them do it well, but a tighter film with clearer stakes is visible through the bloat. Sorkin will almost certainly learn from his mistakes here and Chastain will rightly win praise for her performance. That’s an ending I’m happy with.

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