It’s impossible to watch Molly’s Game — Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival — and not wonder who the real life celebrities are that are all given phony names for the purposes of this movie. And we’re told right away this is happening: In this true story, Jessica Chastain plays Molly Bloom, who ran arguably the most influential poker games in Los Angeles, and during an early voiceover, we’re told that the names, other than hers, have all been changed for obvious reasons.
The film opens with Bloom attempting to qualify for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in freestyle skiing, but a freak accident on a qualifying run ends her career. In the next scene, many years later, she’s being arrested by the FBI in a massive sweep that also involves Russian mobsters with whom Bloom had indirect dealings. It’s a startling shift from Olympic hero to alleged crime lord. The rest of Molly’s Game fills in what happened in-between and immediately after — often using Molly’s meetings with her attorney (Idris Elba, who gets one big “Oscar” scene near the end of the film) to tell the story of how all this even happened.
After Molly’s injury, she worked odd jobs, and one included being an assistant to a has-been, jerk-off celebrity named Dean (Jeremy Dean), who often uses racial slurs and who desperately wants to maintain the illusion he’s doing well. It’s Dean who taps Molly to run his celebrity poker game — a game she runs well, making extremely profitable tips in the process. (Who is Dean in real life? I have no clue, but I now desperately want to know. Whoever he is, he is not portrayed in a, let’s say, positive light.)
The real-life identity of one player is pretty easy to figure out if you’ve ever followed Bloom’s story. Michael Cera plays Player X, who is pretty obviously based, at least loosely, on Tobey Maguire. Player X is extremely good at poker and an intimidating force to reckon with as an opponent. When Molly steals the game away from Dean, Player X goes with Molly. And wherever Player X went, everyone else would follow. (Honestly, Player X does come off as an ass sometimes, but I could see a scenario where Maguire watches this movie and is flattered.)
Another interesting aspect of Molly’s Game is how Molly flirts with the wrong side of the law, but never goes over that line (until she does, which is what lands her in such hot water). For the most part, her game is legal as long has she doesn’t take a percentage of the pot. When she meets with a lawyer early in her poker career, she’s told, “It’s best not to break the law while you’re breaking the law.”
Molly’s Game is the Jessica Chastain movie I’ve been waiting for since Zero Dark Thirty. Chastain is one of the best actors working today, but she seems to be in quite a few movies in which other aspects of the film betray her. (Miss Sloane is an example of this.) But here we get Chastain in all her glory and she is a force, spitting out finely tuned Sorkin dialogue, sometimes at light speed. Even when Molly Bloom isn’t in control, Chastain always is. Chastain owns this movie.
Idris Elba is great in an understated role as Molly’s “not even a little bit shady” attorney, Charlie. (Basically he’s the opposite of Saul Goodman.) He plays by the book, but believes Molly is someone who had real dirt on a lot of important people. She could have easily sold out after the government taken all of her money away, but didn’t. She’s got over two million dollars “on the street” in uncollected debts, but never sold off this debt because she didn’t know how it would be collected. (She didn’t want people to get hurt and Charlie respects this.) Also, we get a pretty great performance by Kevin Costner as Molly’s father — a father with whom Molly has a complicated relationship — that leads to a pretty nifty payoff near the end of the film. (Is anyone better at playing an earnest father these days than Costner?)
Molly’s Game is a perfect story for Sorkin. There’s poker, the Russian mafia, the Italian mafia, celebrities, and sports. The only thing missing for Sorkin’s wheelhouse is President Bartlet. And at over two hours long, the film still feels tight and never fails to entertain.
The only thing missing now is to fill in some gaps on who these people actually are in real life.
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