Molly’s Game is the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, a writer known for his gunfire dialogue on such award-winning shows as The West Wing and The Newsroom, and dynamic films The Social Network and A Few Good Men. While Molly’s intriguing story allows for his usual fiery characterisation, and Jessica Chastain’s central performance is captivating, its tendency to over-explain and some ordinary direction sees it fall short of a winning hand.
The film is based on the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a promising young skier forced to abandon her Olympic hopes after a tragic accident.
Deferring law school, and striving for the independence and success her father (Kevin Costner) instilled in her from youth, she finds a summer job that quickly becomes lucrative — high-stakes, underground poker games with some of the richest, most powerful men in America.
But the glamour and glitz come to a quick end when the FBI shuts her down and press criminal charges for allegedly colluding with the Russian Mob.
Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane, Zero Dark Thirty, Crimson Peak), a reliable presence in any film, is accomplished at portraying strong yet vulnerable women. As the titular Molly, she is tough yet not overbearing — one moment selfish in her ruthless pursuit of success, the next concerned at the ruin her actions may bring — but as a woman in a man’s game, she is obliged to play hard.
We witness Molly’s steady growth from novice assistant into astute businesswoman as she sits on the sidelines and watches the games, noting and researching the tactics and rules. She quickly becomes the woman holding the strings behind various wealthy male players, needing to hold power over men after her strictly governed childhood.
Chastain has the enviable ability to make us care, even when we are compromised by her actions, and isn’t afraid to show Molly’s fragility underneath the veneer of control.
In support, Kevin Costner (Mr. Brooks, Jack Ryan, Hidden Figures) is Molly’s father, and it is his best role in years: A caring but manipulative taskmaster who interviews his children on every birthday and pushes them constantly to achieve greatness.
Much of Molly’s vulnerability stems from a childhood rigidly organised by his ambitions for her. In perhaps the most important scene of resolution, he brings a gravitas and tenderness lacking from much of the film.
Idris Elba (Prometheus, Beasts of No Nation, The Dark Tower) plays Charley Jaffey, Molly’s reluctant lawyer, who initially rejects her but comes to find her more complex than the money-hungry poker princess depicted in the tabloids. It’s a competent performance that evokes echoes of her father, but is not particularly notable.
Sorkin’s script crackles with scattershot character exchanges and keeps interest with its non-linear structure. He does well to demystify the potential confusions of poker and, while his direction is workmanlike, it does leave room for the flashy material to be presented without fuss.
Unfortunately, like Molly at her poker games, this tends to place us at a distance from the action — never truly involved — and the repetitive games become clinical exercises in educating both Molly and the audience. Molly’s cool voiceover which threads the film together is also overused and, at times, obvious.
There is wry social comment in Molly being indicted not only for her criminal activities but for her success and her greed; ironic symptoms of her aspiring to live the American Dream. Indeed, success is a central conceit of the film. “You know what makes you feel okay about losing? Winning,” Molly remarks when she appears down on her luck.
It’s a solidly written, intriguing story, with an engaging performance by Chastain, and a lot of surface flash to entertain. But there is also a problematic Hollywood sentiment that affects the climax and feels out of place alongside the toughness of the rest of the film. In the end, despite its merits, it’s just too inconsequential.
'Molly's Game' is out in cinemas February 1.