“This is a true story,” explains Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) in a lengthy, opening, voice-over narration, “But except for my own, I’ve changed all the names and done my best to obscure identities for reasons that’ll be clear.” Then comes the introduction. “I’m Molly Bloom.”
If you’re unclear as to who Molly Bloom is, and you’ve never read or heard of her 2014 book with the uncommonly lengthy title – it’s called Mollys Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World – then wait. After 140 minutes of fast cuts, dazzling images, and a couple of the most outstanding performances seen on the screen this year, you’ll know just about everything there is to know about Molly Bloom. Writer Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut may not be a CGI charged, theme-park ride, but, all the same, strap yourself in. It’s a roller coaster. With all of its ups and downs, information will come at you fast and furiously.
As the title of her book suggests, Molly Bloom lead an exclusive underground poker game and became the target of an FBI investigation. In earlier days, she was a competitive skier, and a good one. She ranked third in North America for women skiers, but a debilitating accident on the slopes brought that to a sudden end. After moving to Los Angeles for a change of life and to get out on her own, she found work as a cocktail waitress, then entered the world of high-stakes poker where she started her own business, ran her own game, and was eventually arrested as part of a money laundering and illegal sports gambling operation.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, but true to Sorkin’s in-your-face, rat-a-tat style of dialog seen on TV in show’s such as The West Wing, The Newsroom and (personal favorite) Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, then on the big screen in A Few Good Men, The American President, Steve Jobs, and The Social Network, it may come as no surprise that all the above, and a whole lot more, is covered in the opening monologue without a chance to catch a breath, right up until the arrest.
In fact, the overall style of the whole film can be experienced in those opening scenes. “A survey asked what could be be the worst thing that could happen to you in sports,” begins Molly’s voice-over. “Among the answers was, fourth place in the Olympics.” What follows is a lengthy, heavily edited series of sounds, images, and brief moments of dialog, all cut to the beat of the seemingly never-ending narration. When Molly talks of numbers and charts, images of checks and bills flash across the screen, often faster than your mind can take. When she talks of angles on a ski slope and compares them with the angle of a pyramid, you’ll see the pyramid, the 52 degree angle, and the ski slope, all in rapid succession. It’s like listening to an audio book of Molly’s published work, but with super charged images to back the rhythm of the words. Once Molly’s childhood history, her accident on the slopes, the often testy relationship with her college professor father (Kevin Costner) and her sudden, early morning arrest are covered, you may feel exhausted. And then the story begins.
When a film is as heavy on voice-over as this one, the style divides tastes. Where most writers in movies are instructed to show, don’t tell, Sorkin’s approach as both writer and director is to show and tell, and tell in great detail. Certainly Goodfellas springs to mind, but Molly’s Game feels even faster. And when the script stops telling and allows real-time dialog, it’s usually confrontational; two people firing away at each other without a break, mouthing a laundry list of facts and figures from the top of their heads without referring to notes. As witnessed on some of the exchanges written for TV, it doesn’t always work, but when those confrontations are performed by Chastain and the guy who’ll be her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba with his usual, convincing American accent) then it takes off. These characters are intelligent. They know their stuff. They also know how to express it. When a finger of accusation is pointed, they respond as if in a battle, their facts and figures, ammunition, fired with all the power of a fully-loaded machine gun. In Sorkin’s world, no one thinks before they speak; there’s no natural hesitation.
While the best scenes tend to be the verbal sparring of Chastain and Alba, much of what is seen during the poker games can also fascinate. We know that in her telling, Molly has obscured the identities of those seated around the poker table, but we also know that those addicted gamblers are celebrities. Names including Ben Affleck, Alex Rodriguez, Leonardo DiCaprio and Toby Maguire are rumored to be attached. So when a movie star character known only as Player X (Michael Cera) is introduced, there’s a natural desire to want to know who he might represent. Player X is a great player, but there’s a mean streak to his style. He’s vindictive for it’s own sake. When he admits to Molly that he doesn’t like playing poker, she asks him why does he play? “I like destroying lives,” he responds. The moment is chilling, and Cera is surprisingly good.
Also good in a smaller role during the poker playing scenes is Brian d’Arcy as a hedge fund manager called Brad, but referred to as Bad Brad because of his disastrous playing tactics. Brad can’t play poker. He’s lousy, and he never winds. “I like playing with the guys,” he explains to Molly after she points out the huge amount he has lost. “I don’t have that many friends.” But there’s a great payoff to Bad Brad’s story, including not only a future win against a more experienced player, but also the real reason as to why he regularly attends. By losing thousands, he makes millions. Molly’s voice-over narration explains why.
The overall drawback to Sorkin’s slick, breathtaking style of storytelling and direction is that exhausted audiences may grow weary. Molly is a fascinating character, and Chastain is excellent, but being sympathetic to her once you’re fully informed of her personal style, the choices she makes, and the crowd with whom she mixes, the concern over whether she’ll eventually serve time or not is diminished. Occasionally, a certain vulnerability appears that may cause empathy, particularly in an effective later scene when Molly briefly reunites with her father, but it’s not enough. By that time, you may not care. And at 140 minutes, enough with the never ending voice-over.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 140 Minutes Overall rating: 7 (out of 10)