|Original caricature by Jeff York of Jessica Chastain in MOLLY'S GAME (copyright 2017)|
Call me easy, but I’m a sucker for movies about gambling, Vegas, heists, and the like. There’s something about the danger of cards and casinos and the Mob that gets me every time. Whether it’s Michael Corleone not seeing eye-to-eye with Moe Green on how to run a casino in THE GODFATHER or James Bond playing cards against a terrorist in CASINO ROYALE, or even Danny Ocean bringing in a “Baker’s Dozen” of friends along with him to help heist three hotels, I love the snap, crackle and danger of that high-stakes world. Thus, I may have been an easy mark for Aaron Sorkin with his first big screen helmer MOLLY’S GAME, but I loved his film from first second to last.
Indeed, the acclaimed screenwriter makes his big screen directorial debut with the gambling tale starring Jessica Chastain and it’s one of the season’s most entertaining yarns. Sorkin adapted the biography by Molly Bloom entitled Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker. That title is a mouthful, and so is this movie what with its long, complex story about an over-achieving young Olympic hopeful who went from skier to illegal gambling den entrepreneur to multimillionaire to government stoolie all before she was 40. And it’s the perfect kind of story for Sorkin to write and shoot, as it comes with his trademark crackling dialogue, pithy lead character narration, and a righteous moralizing that fits right in with the #MeToo movement this year.
Like his previous biopics THE SOCIAL NETWORK, MONEYBALL, and STEVE JOBS, Sorkin takes liberties with his subjects. But he always remains true to the core of his lead character. Here, he serves up Molly warts and all, and she’s been very complimentary about both how he adapted her story as well as how well Chastain plays her. Indeed, at the end of the day, this may be a crackling thriller but it really is a deft character study. Chastain is in virtually every second of the film, and she gives one of the year’s most nuanced and intricate performances. That’s saying a lot, given the caliber of female leads this year, but Chastain should make the final five nominated for Best Actress with this one. She presents a Molly who is shrewd, naïve, mature, girlish, implacable and relatable, all those contradictions, and often in the same scene.
Molly had to be a bit of everything to lure in the esteemed clientele for her games. Many were celebs, famous athletes, and titans of business. All were men. And these guys weren't exactly used to a woman flying solo and running dangerous, underground casino games held in luxurious, private hotel rooms. Thus, Molly had to do all sorts of things to win over these macho asshats. With some, she was all business talking math and strategy. With others, she played up her feminine wiles to make them relax and feel coddled. Still others, like some of the insecure child-men, she played up the mothering role. Molly was as good at sizing up all kinds of men and figuring out what made them tick. Figuring out how to play them may have been her true game.
One of the most interesting parts of the movie is how Sorkin has costumer Susan Lyell dress Molly. At times her clingy ensembles, bursting cleavage, and three-inch heels border on porn star garb at the AVN Awards, but that is how she had to dress to win over the Neanderthals parading through her gambling den. These oafs would eventually come to respect her professionalism and fairness, but Molly always had to add some eye candy to seal the deal.
Seeing a smart character like Molly, let alone a savvy actress like Chastain, wearing such over-the-top garb makes for one of the film's more richly comic tropes. Molly caricatures her femininity to appeal to the basest he-man instincts of these nincompoops, themselves cartoon versions of men in far too many ways. Chastain even wears her hair dark throughout most of the film to add to the femme fatale fantasy men could buy into more easily.
Sorkin’s script jumps around a lot in time and space, but the newbie director's camera keeps up with all his shifts in story. There are a ton of flashbacks, flash forwards, and retracing steps to add new meaning to certain scenes, but Sorkin the director gives it all a Martin Scorsese style energy and verve. Still, at other times, Sorkin is content to let his camera just sit there and bask in the witty banter that Chastain and Idris Elba as her lawyer engage in while plotting the strategy to get her out of hot water with the Feds. He is one of only two admirable male characters onscreen. The other is Molly's father, played by Kevin Costner.
Costner is terrific in his supporting role here too, adding a fun crustiness and moral rigidity to her father character. (Does anyone play crusty and rigid better than Costner these days?) There are also clever turns from Chris O’Dowd, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Brian d’Arcy James and Bill Camp as the various gamblers who cross Molly's path. But this is all Chastain’s game in the end and she plays steely strength as well as doe-eyed vulnerability better than just about anyone. Quite simply, she is aces here. Let's hope Oscar gambles on her when nominations are announced January 23rd.