More noise than signal

Molly’s Game

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Jessica Chastain’s Molly Bloom seemed to have her life pretty well planned out for a teenager. As demanded by her father Larry (Kevin Costner), her lifelong training brings her to the edge of qualifying for the Olympic ski team, and her academic results should see her follow that up with law school. However, a freak accident sees her hope vanquished, and she decides to take a year off to recuperate in LA.

So, she was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when she meets us, and soon after meets property developer and all-round prick Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), who hires her as a PA / scream recipient. Things take a different path when she’s asked to run Keith’s regular high-stakes, mainly legal poker nights, where some of Hollywood’s most powerful play, including Michael Cera’s Player X, an amalgam of some of rich actor pricks, but apparently mainly Toby McGuire.

So it goes, with Bloom learning the game and improving her hosting, making sizable tips in the process, and also learning some of the secrets of the powerbrokers. She gets so good at this that, when an irrational Keith fires her, she steals the poker game and players away with her to a plush hotel suite, doing a much better job and making more money as a result. Her new priority is keeping Player X happy by finding a steady stream of other players for him to dominate, because, again, he’s a prick who acts like someone is continually pissing in his cornflakes.

Eventually that falls apart once Player X’s ego gets in the way for the last time, and Molly takes her game to New York, running even higher stake games at the same time as she’s running herself into the ground. Some seemingly minor drug-addled mistakes lead, in a roundabout way, to the framing device of the film, her defence in a wide ranging criminal investigation into organised crime that sees a now-broke, asset-seized Molly hire elite fictional lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) as defence attorney and exposition sounding board.

Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut sees him working off of his own adaptation of Molly Bloom’s autobiography, and it appears as though he’s been paying attention to the directors he’s worked with to produce a very solid outing. Nothing, perhaps, stands out as overtly awe-inspiring moments of brilliance, but I don’t recall any clunking mis-steps either, so smatterings of applause all round.

Without the flash to distract, then, it’s mostly hanging on the strengths of the script and the performances, and thankfully that’s sturdy enough to carry the film. Chastain gives an assured interpretation of the character, although one I took a while to warm to. I’d been thinking that she’s not a tremendously sympathetic character, until it dawned on me that she’s not actually asking for any sympathy, just telling us what happened. That works pretty well, apart from the one seen in the final act where she reunites with her estranged father that I’m going to guess is an invention, mainly because it seems to have been written in to balance a largely emotionless retelling of the story. It’s a fine scene in isolation, but seems alien to its surroundings.

It’s definitely Jessica Chastain’s show, and is all the better for it, but the supporting cast are uniformly solid too. I keep using that word. It’s about as good a description of the film that I can think of. It’s a good story, well told, and an agreeable way to spend a couple of hours. I’m not going to pretend that I was blown away by any particular aspect of it – it’s very much the sum of its parts, but all those parts are pretty good, so there’s no shame in that game. Recommendation: watch it.