In 2013, former pro-skier turned “poker princess” Molly Bloom was arrested by the FBI for operating an illegal high-stakes poker game. Molly’s Game – the directorial debut from award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin with actor Jessica Chastain in the title role – is the true story of this woman’s upward trajectory within the world of underground poker and how it all came crashing down.
Imagine this – you’ve been skiing since you were three years old, and in spite of being diagnosed with scoliosis at the age of 12 and undergoing spinal fusion surgery, you join the US Ski Team. You’re ranked 3rd in North America only to have your hopes ripped out from under you after a horrific crash on your Olympic qualifying run. That’s Molly’s story – or chapter one at least. It’s a premise that would make for a captivating film by any Hollywood studio’s standard.
Molly’s Game paints these details as a minor part of a much bigger and far more compelling picture. Bloom moves to Los Angeles wanting a new path in life. She’s sleeping on her friend’s couch and working multiple jobs that include serving overpriced vodka at the Cobra Lounge (or The Viper Room as we know it). There she meets Dean Keith, an L.A. entrepreneur/hustler played by Jeremy Strong. He gives her a gig as his assistant and has her help him run an exclusive high-profile poker game.
She’s a small town girl from Colorado who hasn’t the first clue about poker but sees the game as an opportunity to succeed on her own terms. With the psyche of an athlete determined to be the best, Molly quickly learns how to appeal to players by bringing in opponents with deep pockets and earning big tips in the process. Soon she’s independently running games in L.A., where the buy-in starts at $10,000 and later in New York with $250,000 needed from players just to get a seat at the table.
Many A-list actors frequented Bloom’s games but writer/director Aaron Sorkin doesn’t name any in the film. Although a quick Google search will tell you that Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were among a few. Instead, Sorkin offers up “Player X”, portrayed by Michael Cera of Arrested Development (2003-18) fame. While it’s not explicitly stated, “Player X” is more than likely Tobey Maguire – a player that features heavily in Bloom’s 2014 memoir. This assumption is cemented by a subtle nod to Spider-man thanks to a line in the film referring to the actor’s green-screen work.
The film could have easily focused on the low-hanging fruit of Molly’s story; the games’ glitz and glam and the celebrity regulars. Instead, Sorkin fleshes out a tail of morality and integrity amongst the debris of a woman caught up in the crossfire of her ambition and success. The movie also features guys who try to bully and humiliate Bloom – seemingly threatened by her momentum. It’s a timely narrative that illustrates how men can behave when they feel that a woman is not respecting their ‘power’.
With movies like Miss Sloane (2016), Interstellar (2014) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) under her belt, it’s no surprise to see Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game. Her passion for portraying strong, independent, and multifaceted women equals her ability to do justice to the roles. Need proof? Just look at the award nominations she’s collected over the last seven years. With the “Every Audition Ever” skit on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, we see that her dedication to shedding light on women’s issues also extends beyond the big screen.
Sorkin’s dense and fast-paced dialogue doesn’t speak down to the audience, showing us why he is indeed among the best writers of today. Voice-over features heavily throughout Molly’s Game with Sorkin giving credit to Goodfellas (1990) as the benchmark for just how much voice-over the human ear can handle.
The material for this film comes directly from the source, through months of consultation with Molly Bloom and from the pages of her memoir. When it came time to pitch a movie adaptation, Bloom was intent on pursuing Sorkin. His ability to write with humanity had made her a fan, and his track-record for being bankable in Hollywood didn’t hurt either.
While this is Molly’s story, Sorkin acknowledges that “people’s lives aren’t played out in scenes that form a narrative” and that “you have to put those puzzle pieces together yourself.” He took creative license to add dramatic flourish – after all, it’s not a documentary. The most noticeable deviation is the role of criminal attorney Charlie Jaffey, played by Idris Elba.
Charlie Jaffey wasn’t Bloom’s lawyer. He’s a fictional character who starts out embodying the public scepticism of Molly but sees her as a real heroine by the end. It’s as if Sorkin has written himself into the screenplay given his own biased and misguided views of the so-called “poker princess” before taking on the project.
Jaffey’s parenting of his young daughter draws parallels with Bloom’s father-daughter relationship. Growing up, Molly’s father (Kevin Costner) taught her that she needed to build herself from the outside in. There are only a few scenes between Chastain and Costner, but they’re integral to the story as a whole and make for captivating viewing.
Molly’s Game is a movie about the choices we make and the risks we take. Rumour has it that much of Hollywood didn’t want to touch the project – fearful of the potential backlash from celebrities caught up in the scandal. Molly Bloom’s ambition saw her gamble everything, win big, then lose it all. With Molly’s Game, going all-in was a gamble that paid off.
Molly Bloom, who is banned from Canada because she pleaded guilty to a federal crime in the United States, was granted a 48-hour pass to visit Canada for the movie’s premiere at TIFF. Ironically, the film was shot in Canada.