SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss multiple elements of this film's plot in this review. Of particular spoiler note is one specific scene near the end of the film. I think discussion of this film's merits compel me to at least mention the scene and its effect on my view of the film. You have been warned, and I encourage you to watch the film before reading this review. You may, however, want to skip to the bottom of this post for a short discussion on the film's content before you watch it.
I have a deep love for the writing of Aaron Sorkin, and I have long been a fan of Jessica Chastain. Ever since I found out that the two would be joining together on this film, I've been anticipating the day when I would be able to see it. Now that I have, I can clearly say that this is a match made in screenwriting heaven.
Chastain plays Molly Bloom - a real person who wrote the book from which Sorkin's script was adapted. As Molly, Chastain handles Sorkin's trademark dialogue beautifully. It really is a pleasure watching her and supporting actor Idris Elba sink their teeth into these lines. It becomes so enjoyable, in fact, that you barely notice the film's 140-minute runtime.
This movie is all about success and how we each craft our own view of it. As you may be able to surmise from the title, this will be framed in the form of a game - actually multiple different games.
We first meet Molly on the slopes. She was an Olympic-level skier before a freak accident derailed her promising career. And it was a freak accident. Molly did everything right. She set herself up for success. But one measly little frozen twig caught her skies just right, and she ended up in a crumpled mess on the side of the hill. Her vision of success was changed in an instant. From there, she decides to go out to Los Angeles to clear her head before following her father's wishes and becoming a lawyer.
While in LA, she begins working as an assistant for Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong). Dean has Molly start running his weekly poker games with some big-name celebrities. Molly shows a propensity for it, though Dean makes sure to point out that she has to change her wardrobe if she is to run the games. She has so much success, in fact, that she ends up breaking off and starting her own poker games for the rich and famous.
Chastain plays Molly as a driven, powerful woman. At the beginning of the film, Molly conforms to the wishes of the men around her to get ahead. She changes her outfits based upon Dean's request. Even before that, she obeyed her father's constant commands in order to become a better skier. As the film continues, she begins to take on more of the power structure around her. Molly is running the games, and she is basically acting as a bank for the players (one is known as Player X and is played brilliantly by Michael Cera). To this point, she's done nothing illegal. But once the pots start growing and the chips continue to fly, Molly makes one solitary decision that brings about the unraveling of it all.
If this were only a story of a person who got it all and then lost it all, it would be formulaic at best and completely cliched at worst. But Aaron Sorkin is too savvy a writer to let things devolve to that level. The main story here is Molly's moral center. After everything falls apart, she has the opportunity to do what most everyone else in her position would do - dish on the other people involved to save her own skin. Molly wants to win, but she wants to win the right way.
What the film shows so adeptly, however, is that this very tension - the choice between cutting corners or winning the "right" way - is why each one of us must define success on our own terms. As Molly did in her skiing career, we can do everything right but something outside our control can still keep us from winning. Or, as in her poker career, we can do almost everything right but still make one mistake that has massive implications. In both cases, Molly decides that she will take action towards success on her own terms. In the first case, she moves on from skiing and finds a new avenue for her talents. In the second case, Molly owns up to her mistake but doesn't seek to compound it by dishing to the FBI on the other players in the game.
Not only does Aaron Sorkin write the screenplay for Molly's Game, but he also takes on directing duties for the first time in his illustrious career. I found his direction to be quality, though not spectacular. One scene near the end of the film, in particular, holds the narrative back, in my opinion.
Throughout the film, we realize that Molly's father is a bit of a jerk. He pushes Molly to succeed. On top of that, we find out that he has cheated on Molly's mother. So it is certainly understandable that Molly has some disdain for her father. Late in the film, when Molly is at an incredibly vulnerable position, her father shows up and explains (some would say "mansplains") her situation to her. It felt contrived. More than that, it didn't feel like it lined up with the way Molly's character had been revealed to that point. After watching the film together at our local theater, I asked my wife about that scene, and she said it was her least favorite in a film she otherwise loved.
I do think that scene presents a serious problem for the film, and it ultimately holds Molly's Game back from being truly great. Having said that, it was an undeniable pleasure to watch Chastain and Sorkin work together. Chastain gives a phenomenal performance throughout, and she navigates Sorkin's fast-paced dialogue with incredible ease. Elba is also notable as Molly's lawyer, and he has one monologue that is especially good.
Overall, this is an incredibly enjoyable film. As I said before, the dialogue and the acting keep you from even noticing the film's length. Sorkin is notorious for having longer-than-usual scripts due to his rapid-fire dialogue. I don't even want to know how many pages this script was, but it is a testament to Sorkin and the cast that the length takes a back seat.
At the end of the day, this is a film about the games we play - specifically the game of life. If we let others define our success for us, we're setting ourselves up for a bad beat. We must define success on our own terms, because no one is going to defend our name for us. Sometimes there are things outside of our control that hold us back. In those cases, it's on us to pick back up and try again. But if we do our best to do what is morally right and we seek success not just for ourselves but also for others, we just might end up with a winning hand.
Note on content: This film contains a fair amount of sexual content in the form of suggestive comments and many revealing outfits throughout the film. There is no overt nudity, though there is one scene of Molly in the shower. Only her back is shown. This takes place after a scene where Molly is physically abused by a man connected with the mafia. It is a brutal scene, as is the scene where Molly is injured during Olympic trials. There is also a quick shot of her spinal surgery that may be upsetting to some. There are multiple portrayals of drug usage and characters abuse alcohol at various points in the film. There is also a large amount of profanity in the film.