review by maia mathieu
Aaron Sorkin has a woman problem in his body of work, and his reputation. His female characters are often broad stereotypes, and he once fired a female writer from The Newsroom for raising issues with a scene that amounted to rape apologetics. In Molly's Game, his directorial debut, he has a female protagonist and he almost does right by her, thanks in no small part to the skills of his lead: Jessica Chastain.
On the surface, the titular game is poker. Jessica Chastain plays Molly Bloom (no, not the Joyce character), a former competitive skier who ends up running the most exclusive and expensive poker game in the world. She holds court with actors, investment bankers, royalty and, unbeknownst to her, some of the Russian mob. More on that later. Subtextually, the game is becoming a successful woman in a man's world. This theme could have done with a defter hand than Sorkin's, but damned if Chastain doesn't turn up trumps. She brings complexity, intelligence, and rage to a role that the script keeps trying to tell us is a very good girl underneath it all.
The film is bookended by Molly's Olympic tryout, where her carefully-planned run ends with a dramatic fall thanks to the sheer fluke of skating into a branch, hidden in the snow. She ends the prologue winded and flat on her back and ends the final scenes rising from her dramatic fall. It's a metaphor, geddit?
An over-achiever at a loose end, Molly is introduced to the world of poker as yet another demand from the Hollywood jerk she works for, in what's meant to be her gap year. She ends up taking over the game, building an empire around the vices of powerful men. It's the machinations of those men that bring her down each time, from the scheming actor (played by Michael Cera in an affably evil turn) who steals the game out from under her in Los Angeles, to the Russian mob deciding they want a piece of the action in her New York game (beating, robbing and terrorising her when she refuses), to the FBI who raid her game taking all her money to leverage her into testifying against the mob. This continual robbing her of agency is one of the two biggest bum notes in the movie. The other is a scene with Molly and Kevin Costner as her estranged father that mansplains her apparent “daddy issues”.
Molly's accounts of being the “poker princess” are framed as she recounts her story to Idris Elba who plays her defence lawyer she hires. Chastain is at her best playing prickly, whip-smart women who don't much care if you like them. As such, Elba brings much of the warmth to the movie, while ably holding up his end of the rapid-fire dialogue that is Sorkin's trademark.
The writing is better than the direction, and the pacing is excellent. Poker hasn't been terribly cinematic in the past, but it works very well with crackling voice-overs from Chastain. Chris O'Dowd, Michael Cera and Steve Harrington all show up in the excellent supporting cast. I am also pleased to note that the film passes the Bechdel Test several times. The first half of the film is excellent and the second half is still pretty good. The film never drags (except for the aforementioned scene with Coster) and is very enjoyable from start to finish.