When it comes to making films about poker, the less time spent at the table, the better. Yes, high stakes and tension are exciting, but focus on a complex game for too long and the story gets bogged down in jargon – mundane 2008 flick 21 is a good example. In Molly’s Game, legendary screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball, The Social Network, The West Wing) almost falls foul of the rule. But luckily, a whip-smart script and some stellar casting rescue the first-time director from messing up his debut attempt.
Based on a true story, the film follows Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic skier whose career is ended prematurely in a freak accident. In need of a change, she moves to Los Angeles and starts working for a Hollywood playboy with a gambling addiction. Through his starry connections – Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck and Leo DiCaprio are mentioned in Bloom’s memoir – she finds herself running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker games. Drug addiction, mob violence and many billionaire suitors follow before finally, the feds catch up with Molly and she’s prosecuted for organising illegal gambling. She persuades top lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to defend her in court and the pair fight to uphold her name.
Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, Interstellar) is phenomenal as overachiever Bloom and her chemistry with Elba (Beasts Of No Nation, Star Trek Beyond) is magnetic. Their dialogue-heavy scenes in Jaffey’s office crackle with electricity as they trade barbed lines, each trying to get the better of the other. Kevin Costner, who plays Molly’s pushy dad, is no slouch either. Their final confrontation is heartbreaking and the most emotional moment in the movie. Unfortunately, Sorkin often takes the camera away from these central relationships and the momentum falters. Amateurish poker graphics feature too regularly and there’s a cliched sequence with some Italian gangsters. Just as Molly is overwhelmed by her stressful lifestyle, the audience’s attention starts to waver. But for the most part, the gambling action and legal drama dovetail nicely, informing each other rather than fighting for the limelight. Sorkin might, at times, struggle to keep his cards in order, but with Chastain and Elba in career-best performances, he’s holding all the aces.