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Know when to fold ‘em – ‘Molly’s Game’

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There’s something polarizing about the work of Aaron Sorkin. His writing can come off as a bit overly effusive and self-congratulatory – in a word, show-offy. His trademark “walk and talk” – which rose to prominence in his time on “The West Wing” and became even more overwhelming in subsequent projects like “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and “The Newsroom” – can be engaging as hell, but you can definitely have too much of a good thing.

But as prolific as he has been as a writer, both on television and in the movies, he had never before sat in the director’s chair before taking on “Molly’s Game.” The film – adapted from Molly Bloom’s book of the same name by Sorkin himself – tells the story of a woman’s rise to prominence and fall from grace as her facilitation of exclusive private high-stakes poker games leads first to wealth and then to her arrest and subsequent court battle with the U.S. government.

Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain, “The Zookeeper’s Wife”) was an elite athlete, a downhill skier with legitimate Olympic goals thanks in part to the constant pushing of her psychologist father Larry (Kevin Costner, “Hidden Figures”). Those golden dreams shattered after a horrific crash during a qualifying heat.

Molly decided to live a little before moving on to law school, so she moved to Los Angeles, where she wound up working for a decidedly sketchy businessman named Dean (Jeremy Strong, “Detroit”). Dean was also the central figure behind a secretive high-stakes poker game – one that featured many rich, powerful and famous figures from Hollywood and beyond.

(Note: As in the book, only a handful of real names are used.)

The biggest power player in the game is a famous Hollywood actor who is only referred to as Player X (Michael Cera, “How to be a Latin Lover”), a guy who happens to be both a tremendous poker player and a tremendous a-hole and is absolutely totally NOT Tobey Maguire. Nope, Player X is definitely not Tobey Maguire. Not at all. Not Tobey Maguire.

But when Dean gets mad and fires Molly – both from her job and from the game – she decides to start her own game. And the players come with her. Before long, she’s making a tremendous amount of money (all through tips, so there’s nothing illegal going on) and rubbing elbows with some of the wealthiest men in the world.

However, she eventually runs afoul of the FBI – or at least, some of her players do. And so she finds herself in the middle of a massive investigation that threatens to bankrupt her and ruin her life. Desperate, she turns to a lawyer named Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba, “Thor: Ragnarok”) – one of the best in the country – who takes her on as a client despite his initial misgivings.

Despite being given every opportunity to save herself by naming names, Molly refuses to give anyone up. That refusal leaves her and her lawyer with very few options; the feds are willing to tear her world apart to get what they want. But all she will do is tell her story – hers, and no one else’s.

“Molly’s Game” is a frustrating film, because it is SO CLOSE to being really good. Its biggest issue – and this comes from someone who’s a true-blue fan – is Aaron Sorkin. His directorial inexperience shows through a few times, but that’s relatively minor. The big one is the fact that the man is so obviously in love with the sound of his own voice. He has never been one who displays the inclination to “kill his darlings,” as the saying goes; it’s painfully apparent here, as the film is easily 30 and maybe as many as 45 minutes too long. That excess length saps the narrative of the energy necessary to really power this kind of story.

(Personally, I’d have axed the entire subplot of Molly’s father. It’s not that Costner is bad – he’s fine – so much as that the whole thing is unnecessary. You could excise it completely and the story wouldn’t suffer in the slightest and we’d be looking at a more tolerable length. Just my two cents.)

It’s a great part for Chastain, who is a remarkable talent that simply can’t seem to make the leap to the top tier where she pretty clearly belongs. She’s wonderful as Molly and carries the film with ease; she’s magnetic and engaging and charismatic. Idris Elba is his usual smolderingly handsome self; one could argue that he’s on cruise control, but even 75 percent of Elba is screen dynamite. Cera doesn’t quite pull off the smug douchebaggery of Player “No Way Is This Tobey Maguire” X; he’s just tough to buy as a big enough jerk, though he does his best. There are some great ensemble players as well – Strong, Chris O’Dowd, Brian d’Arcy James – who bring some good stuff to the table.

As for, well … the table, it’s not quite what it should be. It’s possible to make poker compelling on-screen, but Sorkin doesn’t quite have the chops needed to do so. As a result, the scenes that should probably have the most dramatic engagement instead come off as forced and/or flat.

“Molly’s Game” isn’t bad. It’s fine. It’s too long and too dry, but it really is a fascinating story. And the performances – Chastain in particular – are pretty darned good. In the end, you might not want to push all-in, but you should at least stick around for the flop.

[3.5 out of 5]

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