It would be wrong to categorise Molly Bloom’s story as ‘inspiring’ and yet that’s the angle taken by the film Molly’s Game, the true story of Bloom’s underground poker empire and her epic fall from grace following an in depth FBI investigation. What was, at first, a legitimate high-stakes poker game known as the ‘Boys Club’ soon spiralled into a money laundering and fraud operation.
Her story, as told in the film, begins during her time as an elite freestyle Olympic skier when her dreams were shattered by a career-ending accident. Lead actress Jessica Chastain narrates the details of her character’s sporting life; a narration that continues throughout the film. Her subsequent life of shady business dealings is told through a fractured narrative, which ricochets between three moments in time: her teenage years, her poker empire and her legal defence following her arrest.
There is no doubt that her story is a curiosity, especially given the fact that some of the known players in her poker nights included Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Todd Phillips. Even more lurid is the fact that Tobey Maguire was instrumental in founding the notorious tournaments, and yet, despite all of these names being highly publicised in Bloom’s real-life story, the film chooses to protect their identities with a throwaway narration declaring that all names have been changed, aside from Bloom’s. And so what we’re fed is a contrived character known only as “Player X” (Michael Cera) who serves as a composite for all of the aforementioned names; most notably Maguire. Sitting beside him are an assortment of no-names who simply have wealth and wield a considerable amount of power.
The film is based on Bloom’s book of the same name, which, according to those who have read it, is a thrilling cautionary tale of power, greed and glamour. All of these things are adapted effectively, although her story is conveyed romantically, which – for me – stirs suspicion and uncertainty about the credibility of her character. But, heck, who am I to judge? She committed a crime, was convicted and wrote a book. So, let me examine the film on face value.
Molly’s Game is the directorial debut from playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, whose previous work includes A Few Good Men, Moneyball and The Social Network amongst others, and it is certainly a notable effort. He handles the narrative hopscotch well and effectively distinguishes between time lines without confusion. Each period is told with alternative styles, from the earnestness of her upbringing, to the confidence of her poker exploits, and to the grounded acceptance of responsibility during her legal defence. That being said, were it not for the fragmented storytelling, the film risked being a tedious affair indeed. Sorkin takes his sweet time and meanders his way to the finish line, with portions of each section baring too much focus on seemingly irrelevant details.
My interest in poker is zilch, and I consider the thought of watching the game unfold on screen to be a dreadful proposition. Therefore it is to Sorkin’s credit that the poker elements of the story are compelling. The rules of the game are broken down in the narration, with on-screen diagrams to help guide the uninitiated viewer, and with the various mind-games and rule-breaking happenings at the table, I began to recall some of the more thrilling moments in the 1961 Paul Newman film The Hustler. Had the mysterious characters of the game been identified to the audience, the viewer might invest more interest in the game play and less time trying to figure out who’s supposed to be who. But hey, those celebrity players are still bankable names, and this is – after all – a studio film protecting its property.
Chastain is excellent, as always, and has become one of Hollywood’s most captivating figures. Between this film and last year’s Miss Sloan and The Zookeeper’s Wife, she is notching up a respectable resume of strong female characters. She presents the three stages of Bloom’s life with adjusted degrees of personality, making the juxtaposition of time frames a fascinating character study.
Idris Alba supports Chastain as Bloom’s respectable lawyer and Kevin Costner as her strict and imposing father. Both actors are solid and bring a measured balance to keep the film focused, with equal screen time to add weight to the story. Each of them is given ‘that’ particular moment of definition, whereby what they say and do marks a narrative point of impact. It’s a clichéd plot-driving device that serves the narrative well.
One of Molly’s Game‘s biggest weakness, as alluded to earlier, is its running time. 140 minutes is a long haul, and with obvious lagging issues the film would benefit from a much tighter cut. The ambiguity of the personalities and their level of involvement also damage the overall creditability of Bloom’s story. The character’s insistence in protecting their identities also casts a favourable light over her where shadows might otherwise be cast. She comes away from this film as a sort of heroine, whose story is supposed to inspire and evoke sympathy. I did not connect with it on that level at all, nor would I wish to. It’s not that I am prudish by any means… it just feels disingenuous and insincere to me.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10