There are two poker terms you need to know before you even begin to get your head around Aaron Sorkin’s dizzying directorial debut: ‘the fish’ and ‘the nuts’. A ‘fish’ is a not-up-to-snuff player prone to gambling big and losing. ‘The nuts’ is the best possible hand from the cards available.
Sorkin’s whizzy, Oscar-snaffling scripts have previously been wrestled to the screen by the likes of Danny Boyle (2015’s Steve Jobs), David Fincher (2010’s The Social Network) and Rob Reiner (1992’s A Few Good Men), rather well as it happens. In such hallowed company, he’d be forgiven for looking a little bit Aquaman.
Based on Molly Bloom’s memoir Molly’s Game, with its exuberant subtitle – ‘From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker’ – the film begins with Molly (Jessica Chastain) about to dash her Olympic hopes, and more besides, in a career-ending ski jump. She’s not the only one who needs to brace herself.
In a characteristically intimidating info-dump, this opening sequence introduces: Molly’s ceaseless determination; her tough-love relationship with her demanding dad (Kevin Costner), a clinical psychologist and her coach; even an ancient injury. “When I was 12 years old, for no particular reason, my back exploded,” she says in voiceover. No matter, however, as she admits, “None of this has anything to do with poker.”
As a statement of intent, it’s a tour-de-force: feisty, funny and packed with telling details. Olympic hopefuls, Molly explains, consider coming in fourth place to be the worst thing that can happen. Once we’ve seen her survive that ferocious spill, she offers the rather pithier summary, “Fourth place, seriously? Fuck you!”
A lot can happen in two minutes in Sorkin-land, and there’s barely time to draw breath before we’re watching the grown-up Molly being raided by the FBI. The narrative then whips back and forth to establish exactly why, building a multi-layered picture of our gutsy, gung-ho, heroine.
In the present, Molly awaits trial with her exasperated lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), for her alleged Mob connections, though she steadfastly refuses to name names. In the past, we watch young Molly leave skiing behind, move to LA and get a job as office assistant to Jeremy Strong’s dickish Dean (sample dialogue, “Move your fucking ass”).
Soon she’s hosting clandestine high-stakes poker games for him in the back room of a bar, and taking home $3,000 per night in tip money. “I googled every word I didn’t know,” she tells us. Viewers might need to do the same.
After some sneaky double-dealing by Dean’s star player (Michael Cera), Molly is forced out and moves to New York, where her reputation, and troubles, grow. She hires a suite at a swanky hotel and proceeds to set up her own game in “the world’s most exclusive and decadent man cave”.
Ever the pragmatist, she consults a lawyer about the dubious legality of the enterprise (“This was back when I still made good decisions,” she admits), whose advice, “Don’t break the law when you’re breaking the law,” proves easier said than done. Soon the game starts attracting Russian mobsters, Mafia heavies, even a gallery bod happy to leave a Monet painting as his stake, and Molly turns into the she-wolf of Wall Street, pharmaceuticals and all.
Fighting for a woman who could, but won’t, defend herself, Elba – always better with an American accent – makes a powerful, dignified foil. But we’re many miles from dry courtroom drama. When the FBI insists it has phone evidence of mobsters asking for Molly by name, Charlie points out that might actually mean MDMA (aka “Molly”).
In the New York sequences, meanwhile, O’Dowd brings proper LOLs as a drunken suitor whose slurred digressions sound “like the title of a detective novel”. “Victim of circumstance,” he begins, but the key to Molly’s character is how she refuses to be a victim of hers.
Featuring witty switchbacks, montages within montages and plenty of shouty Sorkin power-plays, it’s a whirlwind watch. But it’s only when we witness one poor sap (Bill Camp from The Night Of) lose everything – while Molly tries to stop him – that the breathless, Teflon style reveals its heart. Bloom’s an extraordinary character, expertly played, and we gradually move from admiring her chutzpah to genuinely caring what happens to her.
Some of the musical cues feel a little canned, and there’s a father-daughter rapprochement that skirts the cheese counter, but otherwise Sorkin delivers on all fronts, swiftly dispelling any accusations of fishiness. On this basis, he’s the nuts.