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11 Jan 2018

High-Stakes Acting: Jessica Chastain Is Amazing in Aaron Sorkin's 'Molly's Game'

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Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in Molly's Game. Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in Molly's Game.

Jessica Chastain takes the role of Molly Bloom—a real poker-game organizer and former championship skier—and nails it: Molly’s Game takes a true story that seems too crazy to be real and turns it into a great movie about a woman’s struggle against the justice system, as well as the perils of gambling outside the already-dangerous realm of a casino.

This is a great actress firing on all cylinders. Making the experience all the more enjoyable is screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), whose stylish, snappy directorial debut here shows he has a big future beyond the keyboard.

Bloom was a top-notch athlete, shepherded by her domineering father (an excellent Kevin Costner), who had all of her plans laid out before her. She was going to medal at the Olympics, go to law school and become an entrepreneur. Her plans started to hit a snag when it was discovered that she had spinal issues. Major surgeries later, she managed to get back on the slopes—only to be done in by a pine branch, followed by a colossal crash.

Post-slope disaster, Bloom found herself working high-stakes poker games populated by big gamblers and celebrities. Michael Cera shows up in the movie as one of the players (a character allegedly based upon notorious card player Tobey Maguire). Cera is great in the role, but it would’ve been very interesting if they could’ve gotten Maguire to play himself. That would’ve been fantastically weird.

Bloom graduates from working the games to organizing them. She works up to having the game in New York with the highest stakes before things go awry, eventually leading to massive legal problems.

That’s where Idris Elba, as Bloom’s lawyer, enters into the fray and scorches the screen alongside Chastain. Both benefit from precisely written, fiery dialogue, courtesy of Sorkin. The screenplay and direction are so good that the courtroom scenes in this film are actually some of the movie’s greater moments. (That statement comes from a guy whose eyes often glaze over during courtroom dramas.)

The film also manages to take the usual crutch of a narrator (in this case, Chastain) and make it exemplary, too. Narrators often signify a storytelling weakness, but in this case, the narration takes the excitement of the story to another level. Given the complexity of Bloom’s story and its intricacies, some notes from the narrator along the way don’t hurt. The whole movie has a snap reminiscent of the great Ray Liotta narration in Goodfellas. It feels slightly unoriginal in some ways, but who cares? The thing is fun to watch.

Cera, whose official role name is Player X, gets a chance to go darker and more dramatic here, and it pays off. Cera is one of the most underrated comedic actors in play right now, and his work shows he’s capable of so much more. If you need to cast a major prick, go ahead and put Cera on your list.

Costner’s resurgence continues in this film, after his triumph last year in Hidden Figures. He’s making his name for himself playing elder statesmen who seem like bastards, but who actually have hearts of gold. The cast is rounded out by strong, colorful characters around the poker tables and inhabiting the courtroom.

In Molly’s Game, Sorkin’s dialogue (adapted from Bloom’s autobiography) has the kinetic energy of the best David Mamet scripts. While there are quiet moments, the movie generally fires along at a high energy level that never becomes overbearing. This is also where Sorkin gets big kudos for his directing chops: He keeps a heavily worded, constantly moving movie tremendously entertaining and remarkably coherent.

In the end, this is another shining moment for Chastain. There were many great awards-worthy performances by actresses this year, and this among the best.

Molly’s Game is now playing at theaters across the valley.

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