She started as a skier, but this is a different type of slippery slope.

Movies

Despite Flaws, Chastain’s the Winner in Compelling Molly’s Game

Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut is an insightful cautionary tale about the allure of the quick buck.

Unless you’re an enthusiast of extreme winter sports, you might not be familiar with Molly Bloom, whose unusual path from snow to dough is the subject of Molly’s Game, which marks the feature directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network).

This compelling drama is not your usual sports underdog saga or tragic story of downfall and redemption, but rather a cautionary tale about the allure of the quick buck.

Molly (Jessica Chastain) was chasing Olympic dreams as a moguls skier during the late 1990s, under the tutelage of her hard-charging father (Kevin Costner) when injuries from a crash caused her to change course.

After a series of setbacks, she wound up running an underground poker game for high rollers — despite being essentially self-taught in both in terms of knowledge of the game and business acumen — and parlayed it into one of the most exclusive and lucrative of its kind, attracting players from around the world ranging from movie stars to mobsters.

Those are the flashbacks from Molly’s present-day legal troubles, which included her arrest for operating such a shady enterprise and her subsequent authorship of a memoir. As her lawyer (Idris Elba) asks bluntly: “You committed a felony and then wrote a book about it?”

Employing a jumbled narrative structure, Sorkin’s screenplay is well versed in the intricacies of skiing and gambling, even if it tends to bog down in poker terminology.

Along those lines, the narration is consistently sharp and incisive rather than pedantic, and it’s a good thing, because it’s ubiquitous — sometimes spilling into undisciplined rambling that a more experienced director might have kept in check.

Still, it doesn’t spoil a committed performance by Chastain that balances strength and vulnerability, portraying a feisty character burdened by athletic failure, parental pressure, and financial hardship. She’s more book-smart than street-smart, and might leave moviegoers conflicted — do we sympathize with her plight and praise her ingenuity, or do we condemn her willing involvement in a deceitful criminal enterprise? Either way, the film too easily portrays the brash Molly as a victim.

Molly’s Game is an uneven retelling of a fascinating true story that confronts the inherent moral complexity in its story, even if the actions of its protagonist are ethically dubious. It never cashes in its chips.

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