Friday, January 5, 2018

Molly's Game: All in!

Molly's Game (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, drug use and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.5.18

Truth isn’t merely stranger than fiction; sometimes it’s flat-out astonishing.

Molly’s Game is the mesmerizing study of Molly Bloom, who — in a parallel universe — might have been the gold medal-winning Olympics skier that she was trained to become, from an early age.

Having become master of her own high-stakes poker domain, Molly (Jessica Chastain)
strides confidently through the room, fully aware of the impact she has on her all-male
Or, maybe, she’d have blossomed into the high-profile lawyer being nurtured by her academic talents.

In our world, derailed by a freak accident and occasionally hampered by a rebellious spirit, she applied her preternatural intelligence to become — of all things — the “Poker Princess” known in upper-echelon circles for running weekly, invitation-only games for some of the wealthiest high-rollers in Los Angeles and New York.

Her rise and fall — and rise and fall, and rise and fall — is detailed with supernova intensity by famed scripter Aaron Sorkin, also making a splashy directorial debut in this adaptation of Bloom’s page-turning 2014 memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker.

And yes, the film is as breathtaking as that title.

Perhaps too breathtaking.

As Sorkin’s longtime fans are well aware, his rat-a-tat dialog sizzles with the manic incandescence of classic Hollywood screwball comedies, albeit on a far higher level of dramatic gravitas: often laden with information dumps that demand not only one’s full attention, but (couldn’t hurt) a college graduate’s vocabulary.

There’s a reason Sorkin’s best-scripted episodes of TV’s gone but still much-beloved West Wing clocked in at a fast-paced 45 minutes; most viewers probably couldn’t have endured more. The same narrative ferocity can be found in any isolated 15 to 20 minutes of Molly’s Game, particularly as anchored by Jessica Chastain’s hypnotically alluring starring role, and Idris Elba’s equally powerful supporting performance.

Taken as a whole, though, this 140-minute film is exhausting. Even too many chocolate milkshakes can overwhelm the most enthusiastic palate, and — as director — Sorkin has over-indulged his writing sensibilities. (Tellingly, this fate that did not befall his Academy Award-winning script for 2010’s The Social Network, when his efforts were carefully modulated by director David Fincher.)

Molly narrates her own unlikely saga, Chastain giving these events the stream-of-consciousness passion of a seasoned sportscaster. As is his frequent custom, Sorkin eschews a conventional linear approach for a three-pronged attack divided mostly between the “present” — April 2013 through May 2014 — and the whirlwind events that began a decade earlier. Occasional deeper flashbacks illuminate the childhood training sessions under her disciplinarian father, Larry (Kevin Costner), by profession a clinical psychologist and Colorado State University professor.

Even before all this, though, Sorkin opens with a heart-stopping prologue — also narrated, with clipped irony, by Chastain — that rivals Slovenian ski jumper Vinko Bogataj’s 1970 tumble forever immortalized, as the “agony of defeat” moment that opened so many seasons of ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

No denying: It’s a hell of an entry point, and we’re firmly hooked from that point forward.

Unable to process the remnants of a rigorous routine suddenly cut short by this calamity, Molly retreats to Los Angeles, wanting nothing more than to be “in the sun” as a normal person. Since women with her, ah, physical attributes have an advantage when seeking quick employment, Molly funds this open-ended vacation as a part-time cocktail waitress. She quickly comes to the attention of Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), the mildly sleazy owner of the Cobra Lounge, who hires her as a personal assistant.

Never has a task been more thankless, Strong ladling his performance with skin-crawling smarm. To dub Dean an arrogant jackass is a disservice to jackasses.

But he runs a regular high-stakes poker game in his club’s grotty basement, and destiny strikes when he makes Molly the seductively smiling “handler” who invites and greets the high-profile names who populate the table. Most women in such a role would perform their eye-candy function and then lounge, bored, in a corner. Not Molly: Armed with her ubiquitous laptop, she watches, studies, researches and educates herself in every aspect of what’s going down.

Which is to say, the players, the psychology and the poker. In that order.

We learn simultaneously, and — no question — the experience is exhilarating.

Molly quickly understands that the weekly game revolves around a famed young movie star known merely as “Player X” (Michael Cera, oozing reptilian charm), who is the “magnet” for the “fish”: players who aren’t very good, but have plenty of money to gamble away. When Dean’s personal failings accelerate the collapse of his shaky financial empire, Molly has no trouble — with Player X’s cheerful cooperation — taking over as game impresario.

She brings a level of class, sophistication, charm — and rigorous honesty — that Dean never could have delivered; the caliber of clientele ramps up accordingly. Participants who catch our eye — and Sorkin’s narrative fancy — include Harlan Eustice (Bill Camp), a solid player with the potential for poker greatness; and the haplessly inept “Bad Brad” (Brian d’Arcy James), who loses all ... the ... time, but insists that it’s OK, because he simply likes the camaraderie.

Things proceed. Until they don’t. At which point, Molly re-invents herself again.

Armchair psychologists will read deeply rooted motivation into Molly’s actions; Sorkin certainly encourages such speculation. Whatever the truth — and the actual Molly Bloom probably doesn’t know herself — it’s safe to assume, given the manner in which Chastain’s Molly salaciously teases and caters to her clients’ whims, that she wants to be in control.

She defiantly refuses to be screwed by any man, in either the metaphoric or biological sense.

Getting to the heart of Molly Bloom is what motivates Charlie Jaffey (Elba) to become her defense attorney, after she’s arrested by the FBI — at an absurd level of overkill — in the spring of 2013. Jaffey is captivated despite himself: wholly unwilling, at first, to accept her as a client ... and yet unable to turn away.

Most of the exchanges between Jaffey and Molly take place in his office, often late at night, as he pokes, prods and probes, trying to comprehend her behavior, her motivations, and — most particularly — her unyielding refusal to identify the “fish” who she nurtured and (surprise!) in many cases genuinely cared for. Sorkin makes her the rarest of creatures: a honorable spirit with true integrity, in rapaciously dishonorable surroundings.

Is she really that naïve, or really that calculating? Chastain plays it close to the endowments forever threatening to spill out of costume designer Susan Lyall’s cleavage-enhancing outfits.

Whatever the answer, watching Chastain and Elba tear at each other, during these claustrophobic sequences, is akin to experiencing the live-stage intensity of charismatic actors in a 99-seat theater. And yet that stage-y quality often seems removed from, rather than a supporting element of, the linear progress of Molly’s jaw-dropping career.

As her life inevitably careens out of control, we resent these increasingly jarring Chastain/Elba intrusions.

A certain level of said-bookism creeps in, with Jaffey the dogged psychologist relentlessly trying to “solve” Molly. Which is ironic, because Costner — effectively understated — accomplishes far more, in far less time, during a short but telling third act scene between Molly and her father.

The tech credits are polished and luxuriously slick. No matter what the surroundings concocted by production designer David Wasco, the central poker table always is framed with seductive intensity by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen; we can’t help being enthralled. Daniel Pemberton’s orchestral underscore is subtle, almost subliminal: more finely tuned shading than thematic.

Viewers are apt to indulge in the vicarious exercise of trying to identify the real-world individuals represented by Cera and the many other supporting performers, but Sorkin insists — in the press notes — that these characters are composites. That said, it’s pretty well established that Molly’s high rollers included Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, businessman/investor Alec Gores, banker/real estate investor Andy Beal and baseball great Alex Rodriguez, among many others.

Sorkin certainly succeeds in making Molly Bloom a fascinating (anti?) hero, and I’ve no doubt that sales of her book will spike. Captivating as this film so frequently is, though, by journey’s end I felt akin to Molly’s younger self (Piper Howell), after a particularly grueling session at the hands of her push-push-push father:

Worn out ... and perhaps a bit vexed.

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