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'Molly's Game' Is Aces

Dec 23, 2017
Originally published on December 26, 2017 8:19 pm

Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) is a fighter.

When a freak accident on the slopes sidelines her bid to become an Olympic skier — an accident from which she insists upon walking away — she moves to Los Angeles and gets a job as a cocktail waitress.

The entire arc of her brief skiing career is established in the film's snappily paced, frenetically edited opening sequence. I counted more than a hundred shots in 90 seconds; director Aaron Sorkin is letting us know that he knows what he's doing. (Sorkin, of course, has created many fast-talking characters on The West Wing and in movies like A Few Good Men and The Social Network; this is his first time sitting in the director's chair — though given the breakneck pacing of Molly's Game, it's hard to believe there was a lot of sitting involved.)

Molly meets Dean (Jeremy Strong) while working at the bar, and gets hired as his office assistant. He's got rich friends — famous actors and international businessmen — for whom he organizes a regular high-stakes poker game.

Molly's great at running the game for Dean, but when they part company, she starts her own game, with even higher stakes, taking his movie stars and high rollers with her.

She gets so successful that she's soon running a game in New York, writing a book ... and getting shut down by the FBI. She finds a lawyer (Idris Elba) who can keep up with her, and their trademark, Sorkinian back-and-forth dialogue is exhilarating, even if it doesn't reveal a lot about their interior lives. If Molly has a boyfriend, or a sweet tooth, or a cat, you won't find out from what's onscreen.

But Sorkin makes the finer points of poker — and legal maneuvering — crystal clear. Some of the clarity comes from that snappy dialogue, some from voiceovers that fill in when the folks onscreen have to catch their breath. And even though this is Sorkin's directing debut, quite a bit of the clarity comes from the visuals, annotated when necessary, precisely shot and edited with nearly every trick known to contemporary filmmaking.

It doesn't hurt that Sorkin's cast is as whip-smart as the lines they're delivering. Molly's Game is a dense, complicated movie, made by a guy who excels at — who positively glories in — making the dense and complicated enormously entertaining.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're probably familiar with Aaron Sorkin's writing. He created the TV show "The West Wing" and the dialogue for fast-talking movies like "A Few Good Men" and "The Social Network." But you're not familiar with him in his latest behind-the-scenes role because it's his first time at it. For the film "Molly's Game" about a woman the tabloids dubbed the poker princess, he's not just the screenwriter. He also sat in the director's chair, though our critic Bob Mondello says the pace is so frenetic it's hard to imagine there was a lot of sitting involved.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The power editing starts with the very first sequence - Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom, narrating the character's bid to be an Olympic skier.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOLLY'S GAME")

JESSICA CHASTAIN: (As Molly Bloom) Good snow contact, calm up the body, legs together, good shape, no mind deviation - set up for the D-spin, and stick the landing.

MONDELLO: Molly was sidelined by a freak accident on the slopes from which she insisted on walking away. The lady's a fighter. And the sequence is snappy as hell. I counted more than a hundred shots in 90 seconds. Aaron Sorkin is letting you know he knows how to do this - now poker.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOLLY'S GAME")

JEREMY STRONG: (As Dean Keith) Take these names and numbers. Tell him to bring 10 grand in cash for the first buy-in. The blinds are 5,100.

MONDELLO: That's Molly's boss, Dean. When her Olympic dreams were dashed, Molly went to LA, got a job as a cocktail waitress, met Dean in the bar and got hired as his office assistant. He has rich friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOLLY'S GAME")

CHASTAIN: (As Molly Bloom) I'd regarded Dean as a nitwit when I regarded him at all, but on that pad were nine names along with phone numbers of some of the wealthiest and most famous people in the world. I put the numbers in my phone and composed a simple message. There'd be a game tomorrow night at the Cobra Lounge. There was a $10,000 buy-in. Online players confirmed that they'd be there all within 90 seconds of my sending the text.

MONDELLO: Molly's great at running the game for Dean, but they part company when he decides she's making so much in tips that he should stop paying for her office work because it doesn't seem fair.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOLLY'S GAME")

CHASTAIN: (As Molly Bloom) You're going to stop paying me to do that job because I'm making too much money doing my second job. And if I say no, I'll lose both jobs because it doesn't seem fair.

MONDELLO: She starts her own game with even higher stakes, taking his movie stars and high rollers with her and gets so successful that she's soon running a game in New York, writing a book and getting shut down by the FBI, at which point she finds a lawyer played by Idris Elba who can keep up with her but who says he needs her hard drives to defend her and who tells her something about them that she finds disquieting.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOLLY'S GAME")

IDRIS ELBA: (As Charlie Jaffey) Every time you charge your phone by plugging it into the computer, the computer takes a record of all your text messages and emails.

CHASTAIN: (As Molly Bloom) My laptop has a record of all text messages and emails received years ago on phones that have been smashed with an aluminum bat?

ELBA: (As Charlie Jaffey) I want to run forensic imaging on your hard drives.

CHASTAIN: (As Molly Bloom) Oh, no, thanks anyway, but I'll be destroying those hard drives.

ELBA: (As Charlie Jaffey) Oh, you can't do that. They're evidence.

CHASTAIN: (As Molly Bloom) Well, I'm going to blow them up. I am literally going to use explosives and scatter the remains in the sea.

ELBA: (As Charlie Jaffey) Except you told me they exist.

CHASTAIN: (As Molly Bloom) You're going to have to pretend I didn't tell you.

ELBA: (As Charlie Jaffey) Can't do that.

CHASTAIN: (As Molly Bloom) Yes, you can.

ELBA: (As Charlie Jaffey) You were the one who wanted a lawyer that wasn't even a little bit shady.

CHASTAIN: (As Molly Bloom) New information has come to light. Now I see that that was too...

MONDELLO: I won't be the only one who finds this kind of back-and-forth exhilarating, even if it doesn't reveal a lot about the interior lives of characters. If Molly has a boyfriend or a sweet tooth or a cat, you won't find out from what's on screen. But Sorkin makes the finer points of poker and legal maneuvering crystal clear. Some of the clarity comes from the snappy dialogue, some from voiceovers that fill in when the folks on screen have to catch their breath.

And even though this is Sorkin's directing debut, quite a bit of the clarity comes from visuals, annotated when necessary, precisely shot and edited with nearly every trick known to contemporary filmmaking. It doesn't hurt that Sorkin's cast is as whip smart as the lines they're saying. "Molly's Game" is a dense, complicated movie made by a guy who excels at, who positively glories in making dense and complicated enormously entertaining. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.