“Molly’s Game” is a good movie that swiftly becomes a great one in its final half-hour.
In readying to review this acclaimed 2017 film, I inwardly lamented at yet another colossal running time, wondering why so many modern movies share this oft-annoying trait.
I’m not lamenting now.
“Molly’s” 140 minutes roar past like an express train: It’s utterly gripping from start to finish; and then at the end, it morphs into a bit of a tear-jerker -- rather surprising for Aaron Sorkin.
The renowned and reliable writer behind such films as “A Few Good Men,” “Moneyball” and “The Social Network,” Sorkin makes his directorial debut with “Molly.” He is known for sharp, smart, realistic dialog and a dense underlying network of hidden motives and power struggles that make high drama from seemingly mundane topics like baseball recruiting or the creation of Facebook. But I can’t recall other Sorkin films with the emotional heft that emerges in the final scenes here.
Of course, Sorkin gets considerable help from a flawless cast, headlined by the excellent Jessica Chastain.
She plays real-life figure Molly Bloom, a former freestyle skiing star who began running high-stakes poker games in Los Angeles about 15 years ago.
High-stakes -- as in $250,000 buy-ins and pots that sometimes ran in the millions.
After weathering one indictment and then writing a book on the subject, Bloom was again nailed by the FBI; yet she had no money for a lawyer because A) the agency had seized her bank account and B) she declined to collect on millions in gambling debts for fear of the violence her collectors might use. At the same time, Molly refused to plea-bargain with the prosecution by surrendering personal info on the many players in her circle -- because of what it would do to the men and their families.
So Sorkin surprises us by turning this gambling-queen into a hero though her strict adherence to worthwhile principles. And then toward the end, he pulls out some heavy emotional artillery involving Bloom’s father.
That role is brilliantly handled by Kevin Costner; I like him a lot, but this is the first time he ever made me teary-eyed.
Chastain is fierce and brilliant -- even though the costumers shamelessly exploit her cleavage, which is a cheap and sordid distraction from her otherwise commanding performance.
Idris Elba is terrific as Molly’s lawyer -- especially in his climactic tirade before the prosecuting attorney. Among the strong supporting cast, I especially admired Chris O’Dowd as a drunken poker-addict; Bill Camp as a low-rent gambler who gets in over his head; and John Bass as a rich Russian who uses Monet originals as his card-table collateral.
Under Sorkin’s able hand, and with top-notch work by a trio of talented editors, “Molly” holds you spellbound without recourse to any of the usual action-movie histrionics.
Maybe Sorkin ought to direct his own scripts more often.
written and directed by Aaron Sorkin
Run time: 140 min.
* * * * (out of four)
Rated R for language, drug content and some violence