Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Poker is a game of skill, strategy and gambling. So is the art of filmmaking. Luckily for writer Aaron Sorkin, he’s got the skills and strategies tucked way under his belt. Now it’s time for the gamble: his debut as a director. And he gets a straight flush with MOLLY’S GAME. Based on the true story, Sorkin’s exhilarating feature was everything I hoped it would be. It dives head-first into gender politicking in a man’s world with razor-sharp precision and wit.
The tiniest, unforeseen event can cause cataclysmic shockwaves. Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) is gonna learn this the hard way at least twice in her life – most notably when she’s busted by the FBI for running illegal poker games. It’s clear that she’s always flirted with disaster, getting high off the rush of the tightrope walk between success and failure. Before all that, she had everything in her life planned to a “T.” She lived and breathed excellence thanks to her psychologist father (Kevin Costner) instilling this in her. But, as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Both Molly’s law and Olympic athletic careers took a tumble much harder than her body did down a ski run one snowy day. Seeking a new direction in life, she sets out for Los Angeles. And boy does she strike gold – but not before working through the muck. She goes to work for condescending, rude, verbally abusive boss Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), a Hollywood wannabe who moonlights as a poker professional. Her entrepreneurial spirit is awakened helping him host underground poker games featuring the town’s most elite players – even including one baby-faced celeb, Player X (Michael Cera), whose real life counterpart you’ll come to hate. It’s not long before she strikes out on her own, getting the attention of movers and shakers, but also some shady bedfellows.
Perhaps this picture’s strongest suit is the deftness with which Sorkin digs deep into the gender politics of Molly’s triumphs and travails. It takes the onus off her and puts it onto society. She’s a trailblazer in her industry, smarter, sharper and more skillful than her male counterparts. She brings class without muscle or brutality. In the end, that strategy is part of her inevitable downfall – for which she takes full blame. Yet it’s obvious her enterprise threatens the puffed up male egos around her. It doesn’t go unnoticed that every time she’s on top of the world, a man knocks her down. But there is one who picks her up: resolute, stoic lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), whom she considers an equal. The media attempts to put the moniker “Poker Princess” on her – an attempt to belittle her striking achievements. The government wants her to name names, but doing so would compromise her character – the only thing she has left that means anything to her. That’s how Sorkin humanizes her. Give or take the testy relationship with her father, this is how you write a forceful, vibrant female protagonist.
Flashbacks are handled with craft and care. Narration is utilized only when needed. That said, this is “An Aaron Sorkin Film,” and you’ll notice the love for his own written word. Though the glorious excess of the dialogue echoes the excess of Molly’s former lifestyle, it can sometimes be too much here. Less can be more, and I’d wager the more he works as a director, the more he’ll adapt to this way of thinking. That’s not to say the dialogue isn’t cutting, astute and whip-smart. It is.
Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham and Josh Schaeffer’s edits are fierce, electric and jazzy during set pieces like the poker games and “how I did this” montages. During meetings with her lawyer, things become steady, serious and restrained, mimicking Molly’s cool hand and card-game bluff with the feds. Daniel Pemberton’s score augments the narrative, giving a propulsive overture to the action. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography adds a sleek, polished sheen. It’s as high class and posh as the high-end poker games. David Wasco’s production design welcomes you in, fully immersing you into the world – even into the seedy backrooms where all that matters is the game. Susan Lyall’s astute costume design, particularly for Molly, proves integral as those bandage dresses she sports emphasize the fact she’s trying to keep it all in. And hats off to the makeup department as the shellac serves as her deflective armor.
You’ll be all in on MOLLY’S GAME.
MOLLY’S GAME opens on December 25 in limited release, January 5 everywhere.