Aaron Sorkin wrote “Moneyball,” which invites comparisons to “Molly’s Game,” the entertaining new poker-related drama that he wrote and also directed. The more apt benchmark, however, would be “Goodfellas,” inasmuch as this fact-based movie, starring Jessica Chastain, provides a heavily narrated dissection of a criminal enterprise, from its build-up to its gradual unraveling.
Sorkin’s reputation for crisp, rat-a-tat dialogue is well deserved, and he has an intriguing protagonist in Chastain’s Molly Bloom, who became an assistant to a Hollywood shaker who also presided over a high-stakes poker game. Having taken on management of that hobby, Molly eventually broke from her boss and embarked on a solo career, one that brought her into contact with shadowy characters and put her in the crosshairs of the authorities.
In chronicling that case, the movie – which runs well over two hours – meticulously details how everything worked, as Molly explains it all to her defense attorney, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who needs to know everything regarding how and where it all went wrong.
That narrative brings an intriguing array of characters through Molly’s orbit, as well as an account of how it all worked, from procuring big-money “fish” to participate to the renowned gambler (Michael Cera) with whom everyone yearned to compete. There are also excursions into specific stories about players who squandered, or won, fortunes at the table, with colorful backstories and nicknames (the latter only adding to the “Goodfellas” vibe).
Not surprisingly, the movie presents Chastain with a showy role, as Molly exhibits a cool-headed, bordering-on-icy streak – the fact that she was an Olympic skier exhibits her grit, but the inherent risk of taking a perilous fall also serves as a metaphor – that serves her well in the early going. Before it’s over, though, she’s swimming not just with fish, but sharks, including mobsters who want a piece of her action and aren’t accustomed to taking “no” for an answer.
The heavy narration preserves the voice from Bloom’s book – there’s even a meta quality, in which she discusses writing one – but it also creates some distance and chilliness vis-à-vis the characters. Indeed, although the audience will come away from the movie with considerable knowledge about how to mount a bordering-on-illegal gambling enterprise, that somewhat obscures how relatively little they learn about Bloom away from the tables.
Elba gets by on sheer charisma, but the supporting cast teems with what amount to colorful cameos, among them Kevin Costner as Molly’s father.
In some respects, “Molly’s Game” has an old-fashioned feel, with Sorkin – in his directing debut – showcasing his gifts as a writer, which aren’t easily matched. Few are as skilled at deconstructing the process around something like founding Facebook (“The Social Network”) or government (“The West Wing”), and making it feel like fun, not homework.
That said, while seeing the movie is a pretty good bet, there are enough chinks in “Molly’s Game” that while the movie earns an endorsement, amid the crush of year-end awards bait, it’s not strong enough to suggest going all in.
“Molly’s Game” premieres in limited release Dec. 25 in the U.S, expanding on Jan. 5. It’s rated R.