Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 02, 2018 5:52 am 
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Sorkin directs a female lead

Based on a true story about a woman who ran high stakes poker games, this movie written by Aaron Sorkin is also his directorial debut. It's a spectacular display, typically, of smart, articulate speechifying, rapid-fire argumentation, a bit show-off-y, but if you like such things, there's none better. And it's packed with information, including a wealth of complicated incident and references to real or composite people. This is an opportunity for Jessica Chastain to deliver a brilliant, seamless tour-de-force performance in the lead backed up by Idris Elba and a bevy of highly competent actors.

What's missing here is a focus on collective effort, usually in politics, or fervent moral advocacy, normally inherent in an Aaron Sorkin screenplay. What's left is essentially an emphasis on a ferocious game, a skillful scam and exploitation of legal loopholes, which may leave you feeling some of the essential boy scout Sorkin is missing. And since this is all flashbacks, it has a canned quality other Sorkin screenplays (or his "West Wing" and "The Newsroom" TV series) don't suffer from. Nonetheless the ride is wild, the surprises keep coming, the gossip is juicy, and the hold on our attention is unyielding.

Molly's Game is based on and liberally expanded from her own 2014 eponymous memoir by Molly Bloom, who was a young and beautiful former Olympic-class skier, and tells us how she set up and ran the world's most exclusive and expensive poker game for a decade before she was arrested in the middle of the night by seventeen FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included young Hollywood celebrities, sports stars, rich (or secretly bankrupt) gambling addicts, businessmen and unknown to her - but fatally, because it drew her activities into a world of crime - the Russian mob. Her only ally was her criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey, who learned that there was much more to Molly than the tabloids led us or him to believe. The early part of Sorkin's juggling-act screenplay focuses on how her lawyer, Jaffrey, has to be be won over, and only gradually realizes he has misjudged her, thinking her dishonest when she really was not.

Idris Elba plays the part of Charlie Jaffrey with an almost painful intensity that contributes majorly to the movie's iron grip on our attention, and is Chastain's partner in this non-stop presentation of what is a bookended series of flashback what happened's. Their verbal sparring and Jaffrey's machismo notwithstanding, this is Sorkin's first female protagonist, presented very sympathetically, and unlike other major, appealing Sorkin females, Emily Mortimer's MacKenzie McHale in "The Newsroom" or Allison Janney's C.J. Cregg in "The West Wing," Molly is second to no man, even if "Player X" is her nemesis. (See below.)

Molly Bloom is ferociously articulate and bright and dangerously driven, and that closely links her to male Sorkin creations like his Mark Zuckerberg (when David Fincher directed the screenplay for his The Social Network) or his Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle directing the eponymous flick). But that is because Molly Bloom was this way, and yet a woman, if operating in a man's world (there are no lady high-stakes gamblers here). It's interesting to learn from an interview with her that the real Molly Bloom eagerly sought out Sorkin to adapt her story, battling film industry people who insisted the pairing woudln't be appropriate.

That interview also tells us the movie is more "about" Molly Bloom than her book was. It turns out Sorkin insisted on viewing all the videos Molly's father made with her, and puts in much more detail about her relationship with her father. He's made - blandly - appealing, by the performance of Kevin Costner here, though it's a bit hard to see Costner as a shrink. There's more both about him and about her career as a skier than is in her memoir. The skiing is recreated in some detail, if recounted at blistering speed. Perhaps more importantly, from the real Molly's viewpoint, are the references to her full-on addiction to drugs and alcohol, something the real Molly became fully aware of only after 12-stepping, subsequent to publication of her book. In the cited interview she speaks of the relief of being honest about that, and not hiding her activities from those close to her as she was all the time when running the games.

What remains, and will most interest many viewers, are the many rich men and celebrities in the game, and the details of the game itself. Some hands and plays are, after all, enacted for us. Front and center is a Hollywood star, "Player X," played by Michael Cera, the actual star having been Tobey McGuire. Player X, who was behind Molly's starting the games and finding celebrity players, makes the chilling declaration at one point that his goal is not winning money but destroying people. He has a destructive effect on the game. His Hollywood pals used to lure other players, like Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Leo DiCaprio, aren't shown even indirectly. But we may recognize other players. It's clear "Shelly Habib" (Jon Bass) is the wealthy heir and manager of the Madison Ave. art gallery Helly Nahmad, who as an Observer article on Molly's book describes, was convicted in May 2014 of laundering money for Russian mobsters. His name is altered but the actor chosen to play "Shelly Habib" physically resembles young Nahmad. (Helly Nahad served five months of a year-and-a-day jail sentence; Molly's crimes were deemed minor by the judge despite being blown up and her sentence was a year's probation and $1,000.)

Beyond that anyone can recognize types. There is the hopelessly bad poker player who loves to play so much he keeps coming back, losing every time. There is the good player who's a gambling addict, and can't stop when he hits a losing streak and so destroys himself financially, then psychologically.

What about the game of poker itself? As with any art, work, or process, a feature film can only go so far in recreating the details of expert card play. And unlike the movie Rounders, which shows more, Sorkin's movie has too much else on its mind. It does certainly convey that it's a game of personalities, of wits, and of psychology. But that portrait is secondary to the gossip of players and the stakes - an understandable focus when Molly's game eventually requires players to put up a hundred thousand dollars to get in. The focus is on how fast Molly's organizing and enabling go and how she is led astray. It's made clear - as her lawyer starts seeing her case, that she is forced against her will into taking a "rake" off the game, and was unaware of the game's involvement with crooked Russians.

But above all this is about a complicated, fast-moving thing (remember the high-speed conversations between people practically jogging side-by-side in the White House in "The West Wing"?). Juggling a lot of people and events at once, that is Aaron Sorkin's forte, and high-speed smart sparring talk is how he does it.

I always enjoy that. I came to Sorkin late in the game, as it were, by watching The Social Network as the opener of the 2010 New York Film Festival. Anticipating the excitement of a really good festival opener, I knew I'd love The Social Network long before I even saw it. When I did, I found it "brilliant and timely," not-so-incidentally a sly indictment of the pleasingly packaged (by his own mega-successful website, Facebook) Mark Zuckerberg. Only then I went back and watched "The West Wing." I was a convert, stubbornly loving "The Newsroom" later on though sophisticates like Emily Nussbaum repeatedly dissed it. Well, he gets away from his tendency to moralize and lecture, this time. And, for what it's worth, there is this three-dimensional portrait of an amazing, misguided perhaps, but heroically accomplished woman. My favorite Sorkin creations remain The Social Network, "The West Wing," and "The Newsroom," with their combination of high wit and moral fervor. Chastain and Sorkin will be up for awards. The movie is a little long, but it has so much to tell.

Molly's Game, 140 mins., debuted at Toronto, playing in eight international festivals, opening (limited) in US theaters on Christmas Day 2017. UK opening 1 Jan. 2018, wider US opening 5 Jan. 2018. Metacritic rating 71%. It opens in France 3 Jan. (title: Grand jeu) and already has gotten some very favorable reviews there (AlloCiné press rating 3.6). Watched at Regal Union Square 24 Dec. 2017.

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