Hollywood almost never gets it right with films about poker, or movies with a pivotal scene involving a poker game.
The poker scene on the train in “The Sting,” the showdown between Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson in “The Cincinnati Kid,” the multimillion-dollar game in “Casino Royale” – all filled with glaring missteps.
“Rounders.” Now there’s a poker movie that gets it right. It understands the mechanics, the gamesmanship, the power of the bluff and, yes, the luck involved.
Now comes “Molly’s Game,” and although it is not a poker movie per se in that the lead character does not play the game, it is a story steeped in the poker culture, and I’m pleased to report writer-director Aaron Sorkin never misdeals a hand.
Whether you’re a self-appointed semiexpert such as myself or you wouldn’t know a flush draw from a made hand, “Molly’s Game” works as a slick and shiny glimpse of life in the fast lane, a sobering cautionary tale, and a brilliant character study of a whip-smart, driven young woman who is quick to recognize the strengths and flaws of others, but has to hit rock bottom before she faces some tough truths about herself.
As a playwright, screenwriter and showrunner, Aaron Sorkin has created countless memorable fictional works, from “A Few Good Men” to “The American President” to “The West Wing” to “The Newsroom.” But Sorkin is arguably at his best when adapting true-life stories, such as “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Moneyball,” “The Social Network” and “Steve Jobs.”
With “Molly’s Game,” Sorkin again mines the sexiest, most cinematic, most compelling moments from a real-life story, but this time he’s also making his feature-film directorial debut, and it’s a home run.
Jessica Chastain’s Molly narrates her story. In a typically witty and dry, Sorkin-esque prologue, we see how Molly’s career as an Olympic freestyle skiing hopeful was snapped with one devastating injury, much to the disappointment of her military-intense father (Kevin Costner), who has demanded academic and athletic excellence from his children since they were old enough to walk.
Still in her early 20s, Molly moves to Los Angeles, to soak up some sun and have some fun and put some distance between her and her father’s impossible expectations. She winds up working as a personal assistant to a classic Hollywood d-bag (Jeremy Strong), who puts Molly in charge of organizing a weekly high-stakes poker game populated by A-list actors, trust-fund goofs and newly minted millionaires.
In Molly’s book, she names some of the players, including Tobey Maguire. In the movie, Molly introduces us to “Player X,” a hugely popular young actor seemingly based on Maguire. (Kudos to Michael Cera for taking on the role of Player X and creating a thoroughly repulsive, entitled jerk of a character.)
Under Molly’s supervision, the game grows exponentially in terms of the stakes and the trappings. She moves the game to a suite in a luxury hotel, plying the players with gourmet food and high-end liquor. She increases the buy-in, which means she’ll make more in tips.
And when things get dicey in LA, Molly takes her act to New York and organizes the most exclusive regular private poker game in the country, in which it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars just to buy in.
The thing about these games is they’re not exactly legal, and when Molly finds herself tangling with some Russian gangsters who want a piece of the action, the FBI becomes very interested in Molly’s game.
Idris Elba swats his American accent to and fro in interesting fashion but is otherwise fantastic as Charlie Jaffey, a high-end attorney who takes Molly’s case even though her assets have been seized, she’s broke and she’s facing almost certain jail time. The skilled veteran character actor Bill Camp stops us in our tracks as Harlan Eustice, a conservative “grinder” who methodically crushes the high-stakes game until one bad hand puts him “on tilt” and sets off a horrifyingly tragic (and yet completely believable) chain of events.
Costner has a let’s-lay-our-cards-on-the-table moment with Chastain that is pure Sorkin in that we all wish we could talk with such rapid-fire clarity. It’s so theatrical we should be holding a copy of Playbill in our hands as we watch the two of them parry with each other, but it also results in some of the best pure acting Costner has ever done. (Chastain is great, too, but you’ll have to give me a moment if you want me to provide an example of when she hasn’t been great.)
Joe Keery from “Stranger Things” does nice work as a wild and loose player known as “Trust Fund Cole.” Graham Greene is perfect as Judge Foxman, who hears Molly’s case. Chris O’Dowd’s Douglas Downey is a sad charmer, but he seems like an unnecessary character – until he doesn’t.
Jessica Chastain gives a nomination-worthy performance as Molly, a strong and sometimes admirable but also deeply flawed character. Few actors can shift gears as effortlessly as Chastain, who perfectly captures Molly’s chameleon-like ability to adapt to situations and to rationalize her worst behavior.
And yet Chastain never lets us forget Molly is a good person at heart, and even when the cards are stacked against her, she deserves a chance to get a fresh deal.