I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I don’t want to jinx it, but is it possible that Hollywood is warming up to the idea of flawed, fucked-up women as appropriate — even riotously entertaining — protagonists of their own stories? There’s been a solid handful of really great examples of movies this year about women as fully human people — which isn’t anywhere near enough, but far more than recent years have given us — and 2017 is going out on a wonderful high note with the bold, tough Molly’s Game.
This is all true stuff: Molly Bloom was a competitive skier on track for the 2002 Winter Olympics when a freak accident knocked her out of contention, and instead of heading to law school as she had planned, she took a break and moved to Los Angeles. By the end of the decade, she was running a high-stakes poker game — exclusive and underground but still basically legal — favored by celebrity actors, rock stars, tech billionaires, finance dudebros, and other rich assholes with money to burn. All men, of course. This may be a woman’s story, but unless she’s a cloistered nun, any woman is going to be dealing with a lot of men, and a lot of jerks. Bloom’s story is all about how she plays a man’s game — not poker, but their entitled masters-of-the-universe crap — with audacity and ambition but on her own terms, and by her own rules. Which includes a helluva lot more generosity and integrity than the men display.
As Bloom, Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane, The Huntsman: Winter’s War) is absolutely badass: cheerfully vulgar and solidly principled as she walks an endless tightrope of keeping these men happy so they keep coming back, and keep tipping her lavishly (that’s how she makes her money). She literally caters to them at her poker games, supplying them with top-shelf booze and Michelin-starred food and chump players happy to lose to celebs for the bragging rights. She sometimes acts as a big sister to her clients, telling one player who constantly loses that maybe this game isn’t for him, never collecting debts — which grow to be substantial — in violent ways (no thuggish enforcers for her), and keeping the megasecrets of these superrich, superpowerful, and/or superfamous men even when they don’t deserve such kindness. She may seem soft, but she’s not: her steel manifests itself in other ways, like that rock-solid honesty and decency, which are the most powerful weapons in her personal arsenal. Her Bloom is Everywoman who has ever clawed her way to success: overcoming insane obstacles and setbacks, being underestimated (or not estimated at all) by men who believe themselves her superior, and ultimately betrayed by them just because they can.
There might not be much in the way of story here if Bloom didn’t come under FBI scrutiny for, primarily, starting an even more exclusive poker game in New York that drew players from the Russian mob, which embroiled her in a corruption and money-laundering court case via those players. The film is structured as a series of flashbacks that jump around her past as she discusses her case with lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba: Thor: Ragnarok, Star Trek Beyond). There’s a lot of rapid-fire snark and banter between them, and in Bloom’s running-commentary narration that surely echoes the not-quite-tell-all book by the real Bloom, who still maintains her clients’ confidentiality, that this movie is based upon. (I haven’t read the book, but this movie has me so fascinated by Bloom that it is now in my to-read pile.) The script here is by Aaron Sorkin (Steve Jobs, Moneyball), and this is Sorkin’s debut as director as well, a feat he pulls off with aplomb: he has created a sort of visual equivalent of the whip-smart fast-talking dialogue he is renowned for in TV shows such as The West Wing, barely letting us catch our breath as the film delves into the intricacies of, say, elaborate poker bluffs, complete with onscreen diagrams.
It makes for a film that makes you a bit giddy, in a grand way. This is like a new GoodFellas but about a woman, one caught up in her own impudence and daring. As her therapist father (a terrific Kevin Costner: Hidden Figures, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) notes, she built a multimillion-dollar business on nothing but her wits, though she also succumbed to some of the inevitable pitfalls, such as drugs to keep her going when the work demands too much of her. Sorkin cleverly lashes up mystique and mythology in the same way that Bloom does — how she drums up players for her new New York game is a hoot, and a joke on her arrogant clients — only to then smack it down with the harsh realities of her business. The mystery of Bloom’s celebrity “Player X,” for instance, soon twists into nastiness as he reveals himself to be a grade-A bastard. Michael Cera (The Lego Batman Movie, This Is the End) plays him as a loathsome villain who would be evilly delicious if he weren’t standing in for a real person. (The general consensus is that X is Tobey Maguire. This is not mentioned in the movie.)
Molly’s Game is a cheerworthy portrait of an incredible woman not because she’s perfect or because she triumphs — neither is the case — but because she perseveres in the face of what grows to be seemingly insurmountable odds in a world, our real world, in which expectations are not the same for her as for her male clients, and in which justice is too often nonexistent for those who transgress boundaries not of law but of culture. The fact that Bloom is a real person whose story is what it is is stunning enough. That her story became this hugely engaging movie is something of a level beyond even that. I hope it is a harbinger of good things to come for women, from Hollywood and from reality.