The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Molly's Game

There's something magical about a movie that takes you into a place you'd never be able to enter otherwise. Molly's Game is one of those movies. Based on a true story, it centers around the world of private high-stakes poker games – the kind where players stand to win (or lose) hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single night. Writer/director Aaron Sorkin fills the story with specific little details, yet makes everything clear enough that viewers who have never played poker can still follow along.

Jessica Chastain plays Molly Bloom, a one-time championship ski jumper whose career was felled by a serious accident. She takes a job working for a rich guy who runs big-time poker games. Initially her job is to do things like tally winnings, but before long she's running the show, then breaking out on her own. The key is recruiting players who can afford huge buy-ins: sports stars, captains of business, and famous actors like “Player X” (Michael Cera).

Molly's Game weaves two stories together simultaneously. The first shows how she grows her operation bigger and bigger, seeking out increasingly wealthy participants and occasionally hitting various stumbling blocks. The other is about her downfall. Molly inadvertently steps afoul of the law, leading to her arrest and subsequent need to hire an attorney, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). He's fascinated by both her story and her strict moral code, despite the questionable nature of her business.

If you've ever wondered why anyone would risk large sums of money on poker, this film will answer your questions. Sorkin really gets to the psychology of it – the addictive high that comes from facing either massive success or equally massive defeat, the feeling of superiority a player gets upon delivering a crushing financial blow to someone else, the thrill of hobnobbing with the rich, famous, and/or powerful, etc. Molly's Game is an incisive look at the gambling mindset at this rarefied level.

Molly's psychology is given just as much focus. She makes every attempt to keep the game legal, refusing to take a portion of the pot and getting paid solely through tips. She even has a weirdly maternal attitude toward her players. When someone loses big and becomes distraught, she's legitimately worried about them. There's a psychological rush for her, too. Every big new player raises the level of esteem with which her game is met. She takes pride in running the “best” game around. Perhaps the most intriguing idea in the movie is that the rush the gamblers get is inevitably going to clash with the rush that Molly gets. That's exactly what happens, and the way she falls is riveting.

Jessica Chastain has what may be the very best part of her career with Molly's Game. Given her impressive filmography so far, that's saying a lot. She's on fire in this role, projecting all of Molly Bloom's most essential qualities – wicked intelligence, sincere compassion, no-nonsense toughness, an unwavering commitment to ideals, and so on. No matter what extreme things are going on around Molly, you can't take your eyes off Chastain because she so thoroughly owns the screen.

Elba is good, as well, although his role could have been expanded more. Charlie is largely the audience surrogate, the person Molly tells her story to. He does get one really big show-stopping scene near the end. On the whole, though, the film should have given him a little more to do. Still, the actor does great work with what he's got. Michael Cera is additionally superb, playing a character based on Tobey Maguire. The way he conveys subtle malice is really unnerving, making him a worthy foil for Molly.

Molly's Game is by no means a horror movie, although in a way it kind of is. Financial thrill-seeking is the monster, and the story illustrates how it eats people up. And at the center is a woman who believes in giving folks who are inclined to face that monster a chance to do so. This peek inside their world may give you chills.

( 1/2 out of four)

Molly's Game is rated R for language, drug content, and some violence. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes.

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