Like a gardener on disability, Molly Bloom had one job: Don’t rake.
Instead, after a decade of organizing high-stakes poker games for movie stars, athletes and, unbeknown to her, several members of the Russian mob, the former U.S. Ski Team member with a political science degree got high and sloppy and started taking a percentage of the pots.
Two years later when she’s rousted out of bed by the FBI, Bloom (Jessica Chastain) pleads her case to gifted but dubious attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). He spends the rest of “Molly’s Game” trying to separate his client, who despite earning millions has no visible means of paying even his $250,000 retainer, from the woman the tabloids had dubbed “the poker princess.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, making his directing debut, uses Bloom’s own book as a starting point. But where Bloom identified some of the biggest names at her games — Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire — Sorkin opted to use composite characters. But, for the curious among you, the actor known as Player X (Michael Cera), who admits he doesn’t even enjoy poker but plays because “I like destroying lives,” seems to be at least 75 percent Maguire.
Following a horrific injury during qualifying for the 2002 Winter Olympics, Bloom postpones law school and moves from Colorado to L.A. Before long, she’s running a weekly poker game for her Hollywood player boss. (“I Googled ‘What type of music do poker players like to listen to?’ And then tried to figure out how to make a playlist out of one Kenny Rogers song.”)
After a few years of this, and several more organizing higher-stakes games on her own in a suite at the Four Seasons, Bloom relocates to Manhattan and sets up games with $250,000 buy-ins. One player, an art dealer, brings a $7 million Monet to the table.
Told early on that what she was doing was quasi-legal, so long as she never skimmed from the games, Bloom takes home a small fortune in tips. But when the stakes grow increasingly higher, and she’s put on the hook for any losses the players can’t cover, she folds and begins raking. That’s when the Feds have her, and they’re determined to get her to roll over on the Russian mob, despite the fact that she knows nothing about them.
Told in nonlinear fashion, “Molly’s Game” is a rather intimate portrait of an exceptional woman.
Chastain ably captures both sides of Bloom: the shrewd business mind and the slinky temptress. (During her first hearing, Jaffey advises Bloom to stop dressing “like the Cinemax version of yourself.”) And Sorkin’s words float out of Elba’s mouth as though he’s been waiting for them his entire career.
The actors share only about seven scenes, but their chemistry is delightful, and neither is afraid of going all-in.
Movie: “Molly’s Game”
Running time: 140 minutes
Rating: R; language, drug content and some violence
Opens Monday: At multiple locations
Contact Christopher Lawrence at email@example.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.