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A winning hand: Sorkin, Chastain excel with 'Molly's Game'

  • Film-Review-Molly-s-Game-2

    This image released by STXfilms shows Idris Elba, right, and Jessica Chastain in a scene from "Molly's Game."

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Film-Review-Molly-s-Game-1

    This image released by STXfilms shows Jessica Chastain in a scene from "Molly's Game."

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

Based on the incredible yet true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier who later ran an exclusive high-stakes underground poker game for celebrities and the ultra-rich until it was shut down by the Feds, Molly's Game showcases a riveting performance by Jessica Chastain as Bloom and Aaron Sorkin’s loquacious and eloquent dialogue.

Entertaining and mostly on the mark, this slick tell-all drama moves at a brisk pace only to stumble near the end with an improbable full circle moment that, while necessary in the traditional screenplay formula for character growth, is cumbersome and even hokey by the film's cynical standards.

Otherwise, Sorkin, making his directorial debut, proves himself more than capable as a filmmaker, as he resists that temptation for most first-time directors to overly assert themselves into the film, and instead trusts his script and those giving life to his words.

And really, Molly’s Game’s plot is the star attraction anyway. Based on the real-life Bloom’s 2014 memoir, Molly's Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World, Bloom’s covert rise and tabloid fall is a perversion of the American rags-to-riches dream, as ingenuity and hard work are harbingers of success, but also a humiliating lesson in playing the odds for too long.

In Bloom, Sorkin knows he has a fascinating character to dissect.

Brainy, beautiful, and blessed with a talent for reading human behavior and understanding how to manipulate it, she is forever trying to prove herself to those in her life.

TRAILER: Molly’s Game

‘Molly’s Game’

Directed by Aaron Sorkin. Screenplay adapted by Sorkin from the book by Molly Bloom. A STX Entertainment release playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated R for language, drug content, and some violence. Running time: 140 minutes.

Critic's rating: 3.5 stars

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, and Kevin Costner.

As a teenager, she was a gifted student often overshadowed by her older brothers, and as a top skier, she always came up just short, even as she’s pushed by her stern psychologist father (Kevin Costner) to the point of exhaustion and eventually a severe knee injury that ends her Olympic aspirations.

Her identity wiped out in that ski accident, Bloom starts anew against her dad’s wishes, taking a low-level job as a do-everything assistant to a demanding Hollywood executive named Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) with financial problems. To offset his money issues, Keith runs a high-stakes, by-invitation-only poker game in and around Los Angeles. But really it falls to Bloom to put everything together for each weekly game, including keeping the clients informed and happy.

She gets so good at the tasks that she double-crosses Keith — but only after he double-crosses her — and steals most of his clients for her own exclusive poker game.

As her games grow bigger so do the stakes and then ... well, the film opens with a late-night FBI raid of Bloom’s New York home, so you know things unravel at some point.

And that's how we’re introduced to Bloom: desperate but resolved. She turns to a successful attorney named Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) who is reluctant to defend her. Sorkin’s story-telling device is to alternate in the present of Bloom’s legal woes with Jaffey, as she faces up to a decade in prison on charges of money laundering and illegal gambling, with flashbacks to her past, a similar approach to his script for the Steve Jobs bio, Jobs, but without that film's three distinct life chapters.

Much of the fun of Molly’s Game is being a fly on the wall during these games as large amounts of money — more than most of us will make in several years — are won and lost in quick succession. As with all the prominent figures in the book, names have been changed though it’s not too difficult to guess who is who. Michael Cera, for example, plays “Player X,” who is either a composite character of well-known celebrities known to frequent these games, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck, but is most likely based on Tobey Maguire.

Bloom’s introduction into this world is quick, and her mastery of it even quicker, as she learns how to push, pull, and gently pressure her clients such as a hedge-fund manager (Chris O’Dowd) only too happy to lose his money.

Bloom narrates the flashbacks as well, giving us an inside view of what is really happening.

Chastain is fierce in a role that echoes that of a similarly tough-but-flawed D.C. lobbyist in last year’s Miss Sloane. Molly's Game isn’t so much about those high-stakes poker matches, but a growth chart of a woman’s journey into a man’s world, as she discovers on the job how to be strong and assertive on her own terms.

Elba is also effective as the tough and ethical criminal attorney who can’t initially get past Bloom as the tabloid sensation dubbed “poker princess.” Their banter about this provides a few sparks, until they settle in on the same team.

To that end, Sorkin works in Jaffey’s precocious daughter as a way of humanizing Bloom after the two bond in the law office, though it's obvious their relationship is nothing more than a script device, just as Jaffey’s stern fathering of his daughter mirrors that of Bloom’s past with her dad.

Bloom’s relationship with her father is pushed aside for most of the film, until that quick resolve that exists mainly to tie up loose ends that aren’t particularly bothersome since she’s moved on in her life.

Despite those script issues, Chastain's striking performance and Sorkin’s way with words make Molly’s Game a winning hand.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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