The title character in the unusual ‘Molly’s Game’ plays her cards close to her vest

January 11, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 11, 2018

Molly’s Game, is a character study of a thwarted competitive skier who stumbles into the world of running high-stakes poker games.

The feature, which Sorkin directed and adapted for the screen from a memoir by Molly Bloom, opens as its title character is about to start her final qualifying run for the 1998 Winter Olympics. After her hopes of reaching Nagano are derailed by a freak accident, the recent University of Colorado graduate decides to postpone law school for a year and spend some time in Los Angeles. This decision, as narrated by Bloom, is the first spontaneous choice she’s made in her life.

While working as a nightclub waitress, Bloom (Jessica Chastain, the CIA analyst from Zero Dark Thirty and the young mother in Tree of Life) meets Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), a shady businessman with an affinity for comely young assistants. Keith is a jerk, but he’s a jerk who happens to host a weekly poker game attended by some of Southern California’s richest and most powerful men — and he needs Bloom’s help running it.

Bloom knows almost nothing about poker, but she’s more than capable of keeping track of the player’s money while listening to the chatter in a corner of the room. She looks up the phrases she doesn’t understand (there are plenty at first) and becomes acquainted with the players’ styles and tastes. She’s motivated to learn in part by her interest in meeting and eavesdropping on famous actors, rich technologists and powerful businessmen. But the money turns out to be a good incentive, too: The tips Bloom collects after a few hours’ work at the game dwarf her earnings from her other jobs.

When the callow Keith fires Bloom, she quickly sets up a rival game in a hotel suite on the same night and staffs it with friendly young waitresses. The cadre of players forget about their erstwhile host almost as soon as they see the revealing dress Bloom is sporting.

Bloom soon incorporates; eventually, she moves to New York, where she hosts a game virtually every night of the week. Her profession is officially event-organizing, she’s scrupulous about reporting her income, and because her poker dealers never collect a rake — a percentage of the pot that the bettors are vying to win — she’s technically operating within the limits of the law.

In the end, however, Bloom pushes too far. Strung out on drugs due to the pressure of running many games at all hours of the day and night, she starts raking large pots and admits a few shady players into her game without proper vetting. After Bloom crosses a few too many powerful men, she winds up facing unwanted scrutiny from powerful operators on both sides of the law. Part of the problem, fittingly given the role that chance plays in poker, involves a very unfortunate coincidence.

The picture is framed by a series of conversations between Bloom and Charlie Jaffey, the defense attorney Bloom hires after the feds seize all her assets and charge her with racketeering. (In reality, Bloom published her memoir in 2014, the year after her arrest; in the movie, the book has been printed and Bloom has completed a publicity tour shortly before her arrest.) Some of the story’s tension stems from Jaffey’s struggle to find out just how candid his client is being.

Like any good poker player, Bloom is reluctant to reveal more than she has to, and the savvy Jaffey (Englishman Idris Elba of The WirePacific Rim and Star Trek Beyond) quickly catches her in a minor lie. The attorney is initially willing to believe federal allegations that she’s mobbed up, and the two clash over Bloom’s determination to risk a prison sentence rather than spilling all her secrets as a cooperating witness for the prosecution.

Molly’s Game is light on actual poker but involves plenty of back-and-forth between Bloom and the other characters, which include her domineering father, Larry (Kevin Costner). The verbal fencing is a specialty of first-time director Sorkin, who came to fame with his play and script for A Few Good Men before becoming the creator, producer and head writer for the beloved The West Wing and other television series. His direction here isn’t flashy but gets the job done, reliably upping the tension whenever Bloom faces a crucial confrontation. He also benefits from terrific outings by Chastain, Elba and Costner.

Molly’s Bloom isn’t a great movie, but it is an interesting one, thanks to the complex woman at its center. Bloom ultimately emerges as an intriguing figure: At once vulnerable and fiercely determined, Bloom operates on the fringes of the law but jealously guards what she sees as her own integrity. Like her or not, moviegoers could do worse than to spend a few hours in her company.

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