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Molly's Game

Universal // R // April 10, 2018
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted April 11, 2018 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Like many other people, one of my favorite things to do to pass time on a roadtrip is to turn on an audiobook that'll keep me engaged until the end of the driving session. While I've neither read nor listened to Molly Bloom's autobiographical tell-all, it essentially feels like I have after watching Aaron Sorkin's take on Molly's Game, more specifically like I've experienced the text of the book had Jessica Chastain volunteered to do the voicework. Delving into the world of organizing high-stakes poker games for prominent clientele and navigating the legality of doing so, Bloom's story involves daring entrepreneurship and logistics that make it an engaging story to absorb regardless of the medium, despite the general lack of dramatic activity in the story's developments themselves. While Chastain channels ample stature and durability into her portrayal of Bloom, writer/director Sorkin's punchy, mildly-stylized dialogue doesn't entirely overcome her story's inherent lack of big events to focus on, instead relying on copious narration that feels like Molly's Game is being told to us rather than shown.

Fate had it out for Molly Bloom from when she was a young aspiring skier, yet a skeletal defect and an oppressive father weren't enough halt her ambitions, still getting her within striking distance of the Olympics. A bad accident on a speed-skating course was enough, though, leading her to salvage a life without competitive sports in her future. Molly's Game focuses on how her scramble to get a job post-skiing led her into the world of semi-underground celebrity poker, in which renowned faces in the media fork over tens of thousands of dollars in buy-in sums to compete with one another; while some people are named in her book and are subtly alluded to in the appearances and performances from the film's actors, they aren't named in the film. The perspective of Molly's Game comes after Bloom had written her book and come face-to-face with law enforcement, though, so it also tells the story of how she and her prospective lawyer (Idris Elba) tackle decisions she made that took her dealings into illegal territory.

Sorkin has stated that Molly's Game isn't much of a poker movie, and that ends up being true with how attention directs almost exclusively at Molly's efforts to organize the game(s) instead of the actual card-playing itself, the moving parts of her business and her composure throughout the challenges posed. Therefore, the activity at the core of that story isn't filled with traditional excitement, hinged on Bloom trading messages with contestants, transforming venues into accommodating "man caves", and the mild spikes in tension involved when her defeated clients want to spend more money to keep playing. Molly's Game enlivens the activity by offering a glimpse into the turning gears of Bloom's mind while she's arranging everything, achieved by consistent and personality-infused voiceover from Chastain as she, in essence, narrates everything that happens onscreen. This turns Sorkin's film into a verbose experience, more Social Network than either West Wing and The Newsroom due to how much it relies on external narration to explain the onscreen action, doing far less showing than outright, bluntly telling.

Luckily, Jessica Chastain provides a unique dramatic force to Molly's Game that speaks almost as loudly as its narration, who resonated even as Bloom merely stands there collecting buy-ins or making quick decisions about how her business plays out on a given night. What's interesting about Molly Bloom's story is the relative neutrality of her character: outside of how one sympathizes with the injury that changed her career path, she doesn't exhibit many character traits that make one sympathize further with her temperament or the decisions she makes. Orchestrating poker games isn't something Bloom aspired to do -- the film emphasizes her lack of knowledge and interest in poker beforehand -- instead utilizing an opportunity that fell into her lap and expanding upon it, capitalizing on both its financial potential and how it strengthens her swaying power in significant circles. Chastain brings both feminine allure and professional detachedness to Bloom, and it's compelling to see how she works with Sorkin's rhythm of quippy dialogue.

Those expecting anything close to the kind of card-playing suspense found in Rounders or Maverick or, yeah, that scene from Casino Royale won't find that in Molly's Game, as the only times the film centers on the hands being played are when reckless betting might directly impact Molly's operations. Instead, Sorkin explores other venues of intrigue surrounding the gambling operation, such as how the performances and appearances of the players casually reference the celebrities rumored -- or named -- in Molly's tell-all, especially that of the integral Player X played by Michael Cera. Chiefly, emphasis gets placed on the trickiness involved with how Molly exploits her contacts and connections to shift the poker operation under her control, to which Sorkin's telling of her story sends mixed messages about the effort and risk involved. Despite the narration telling otherwise, Sorkin's tone and flow doesn't effectively depict that it's difficult for her to poach players from other games and recruit her own, only that it'll get problematic if -- when -- she makes the wrong choices about managing them and her game.

Molly's Game establishes early on that, yes, she did make reckless decisions that got her in trouble with both the law and organized crime, and much of the film incrementally builds to that crossover point, occurring like flashbacks as she talks with the gutsy lawyer sharply realized by Idris Elba. The subtlety in which Sorkin executes the point where she delves into illegal activity ends up being a highpoint for the film's dramatic tension, essentially becoming a catalyst for the story's traumatic progression into how Molly Bloom loses control within the male-dominated realm. Combined with how she resolves her relationship with her manipulative father, the culmination of Molly's Game in the present era takes a detour into an oddly melodramatic portrayal of how she's conquered the odds and her past, which doesn't really seem earned by the story dictated to the audience. Despite a messy ending and what seems like the avoidance of juicier details from Molly Bloom's account, Sorkin's first directorial effort deals out an engaging semi-nonfictional hand that would've been better with a few different cards.

Video and Audio:

Molly's Game operates in a lot of dim, warmly-lit rooms that one would expect poker games to take place in, giving the cinematography a casual glow as card players are observed and navigated by an enterprising, smartly-dressed woman. The film's visual language is fairly matter-of-fact, so Universal's transfer must grasp onto inherent elements in close-ups and the scenery to engage the sense with this Blu-ray, presented in its intended aspect ratio at 2.35:1 through a 1080p AVC treatment. It's a fairly forgettable transfer accentuated by the contours of flowing hair, the intricacy of jewelry, and the edges of card lines on a table, which have the sharpness of just about any other modern film out there. Black levels fluctuate: in cooler scenes outdoors or in Molly's apartment, contrast levels are rich and natural; in the card-playing atmosphere, the warmth of the intended photography impacts the lightness of black levels, yielding grayish and elevated shadows in places. Skin tones are reputably warm or restrained as dictated by the transfer, and a few blasts of neon and deep shades of Molly's outfits produce attractive palette choices. It's a stable high-definition rendering of a unremarkable, forgettable visual experience.

About the same can be said for the sound quality of Molly's Game, brought to the table in a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Beyond the thud of a few bodies on hard surfaces, there isn't much impact to be felt in the capturing of the lounge atmosphere created by Molly Bloom, reflected in the chatter and shifting of bodies well enough in the front channels of the track. You've gotta really listen for any significant sound elements, like the smack of a full paper bag flung against a wall or the sound of cards being dealt, but the delicate details of those effects add touches of strength to the general atmosphere. Of course, the most prominent features of the track is the dialogue, which consistently capture the buzzing energy of a card game and the after-play chatter, and the persistence of Molly Bloom's narration, to which Jessica Chastain's verbal delivery remains clear, robustly aware of midrange tones, and not too elevated in volume to drown out the few details within. No dialogue goes unheard, no slight clings of glass or poker chip clacks are dulled.

Special Features:

The only extra, Building an Empire (3:03, 16x9 HD) is an uninteresting cobbling-together of brief interview snippets with Aaron Sorkin, Jessica Chastain, even Molly Bloom herself, in which the content they divulge is strictly surface-level, press-kit stuff and the clip-to-interview ratio is pretty unsatisfying.

Final Thoughts:

Aaron Sorkin again transforms a relatively low-keypremise into an intriguing onscreen depiction with Molly's Game, also his directorial debut, in which he adapts the autobiographical recount of how Molly Bloom became the runner of a private, celebrity-filled poker game that got her in trouble with the law. With Jessica Chastain robustly embodying the lead role -- and Idris Elba as her lawyer -- the film depicts how an ex-skier with no card-playing knowledge built a lucrative business out of orchestrating elite games, and how fleeting decisions nudged her dealings into illegal territory. Sorkin takes a straightforward, tedious route by relying heavily on narration from Chastain's Bloom to essentially tell the audience everything that's happening and why it's exciting, though, which can grow tiresome with the less energetic elements of the story that occur across two-and-a-half hours. The performance value, the conflicted morality, and the punchier moments of the tension late in the game make it a compelling semi-nonfictional depiction, if a bit too wordy even by Sorkin's standards. Universal's Blu-ray looks and sounds just fine, but there isn't much in the extra department here. A worthwhile Rental.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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