[Screen It]

"MOLLY'S GAME"
(2017) (Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A woman must contend with her high-stakes, underground poker operation becoming too successful and drawing the attention of people above and beyond her rich clientele.
PLOT:
Having been trained and pushed by her therapist and psychology professor father, Larry (KEVIN COSTNER), Molly Bloom (JESSICA CHASTAIN) is a young woman who once was a top Olympic skier hopeful, only to have an injury sideline that quest. But her most recent attempt to excel at something -- in this case, running a high-stakes, underground poker operation where she was making millions of dollars per year in tips -- has gotten her in hot water with the feds. Not only have they seized her money, but she's always facing some serious prison time if convicted of breaking the law. And thus without any money but having recently published a book about her unique vocation, she manages to convince defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (IDRIS ELBA) to defend her in court.

We then flashback to seeing her as a twenty-something woman living in Los Angeles and working for a not particularly nice boss, Dean Keith (JEREMY STRONG), who moonlights as an underground poker facilitator when not working his investment banker job. He wants Molly to take over the day-to-day operation of that and she ends up quite good at it, bringing in other wealthy players to compete against a famous Hollywood actor who she refers to as Player X (MICHAEL CERA). Among them are hedge fund manager Brad (BRIAN D'ARCY JAMES), seasoned gambler Harlan Eustice (BILL CAMP) who doesn't know when to quit, and Douglas Downey (CHRIS O'DOWD), a gambler who takes a drunken liking to Molly.

When she gets big enough and tires of Dean mistreating her, Molly breaks away and runs her own game, taking the gamblers with her, hiring professional card dealer B (ANGELA GOTS) to handle each game, and makes sure not to take a cut of the pot lest she break the law in doing so. But by being the "house" and extending credit to the players, she takes on ever greater risks, all of which leads to a growing dependency on drugs to keep going, angering some of the players, and drawing the unwelcome attention of others ranging from the mob to the feds.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
I don't know much about the world of professional gambling, but I imagine being such a player is something akin to being a movie actor or actress. There are probably tens of thousands of professionals in both fields, but few make any sort of real and especially consistent money, and only a handful end up in the top one percent of income earners in the world. Even so, and despite the long odds, thousands of people decide to ante up, give it a go, and lets the chips and cards fall where they may.

Of course, the smart money is on those who figure out how to make money from those making a healthy living in such occupational pursuits. Sure, the casinos and other such venues pretty much have a lock on providing the locations, amenities and enhanced creature comforts to entice high rollers to use their facilities. Sometimes, however, intrepid entrepreneurs manage to fly under the radar and set up and run lucrative underground gambling operations

One such person was Molly Bloom, a one-time top three female skier in North America who was recruited at the age of twenty-four to transition from being a cocktail waitress to cater to players of high-stakes poker games in L.A.'s Viper Room. That eventually blossomed into her own gaming operation with clients such as Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, and Leonardo DiCaprio among others, making more than $4 million in tips in 2009, and eventually led to her moving to Manhattan to run games with buy-ins reportedly in the $250,000 range.

She initially skirted the law of running an illegal gambling operation by not taking a cut of the pot, but eventually did just that to cover the credit she was extending to players (and being stiffed by some of them). She also ended up addicted to drugs to keep herself operating through fatigue and stress, and eventually attracted the attention of both the Russian mob and U.S. feds, the latter of whom pressed charges in 2013. All of which resulted in her eventually writing a memoir about her involvement in this world, 2014's "Molly's Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World."

All of that and a back-story of coming from a competitive family and demanding father turned out to be catnip for writer Aaron Sorkin who's now taken Bloom's book and adapted it into the gambling drama "Molly's Game" which also marks the famous wordsmith's debut in the director's chair. The result is a sometimes disjointed and occasionally episodic offering that nonetheless ends up engaging enough thanks to Sorkin's usual flourishes with dialogue and Jessica Chastain's riveting performance as the title character.

There's a lot of material to cover in the 140-some minute film, and rather than proceed in a chronological, linear-based storytelling fashion, Sorkin has opted to jump around through time. Thus, not only do we see her conferring with her new and initially reluctant to take the case lawyer (Idris Elba) after being charged by the feds a second time, but also her interactions with her "success and winning are the only options" father played by Kevin Costner.

Individually, most of those scenes work decently to quite well, as do those showing the progression from essentially being a glorified cocktail waitress at the initial games put on by her boss (Jeremy Strong) to running her own operation. But all of the back and forth storytelling maneuvering sometimes creates that episodic and disjointed feeling that, at times, undermines the cohesiveness and flow of the overall offering.

It's certainly not a fatal flaw and not one that necessitates folding the cinematic hand at any point in the film. But it is one that prevented me from being completely blown away by the otherwise obviously quite interesting tale. Otherwise, Sorkin's direction is decent, he (via cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen) has a good eye for compelling visuals and the script has all of the usual dialogue flourishes one now comes to expect from this writer. "Molly's Game" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed December 3, 2017 / Posted January 5, 2018


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