“Molly’s Game” is based on the not preposterous premise that all men are bad except, perhaps, for Idris Elba.
Jessica Chastain and Jessica Chastain’s décolletage star as Molly Bloom, a ranked junior freestyle skier who pivots from Coloradan Olympic qualifiers to back-room poker entrepreneurship. After some trauma on the snow moguls she takes a gig running a weekly celebrity Texas Hold ‘Em game from a wannabe business mogul named Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong).
At first she knows nothing about the sport and must google “what kind of music poker players like” and then scrambles tracks beyond Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” But, because Dean is a vain fool, Molly is soon running a better game than his, taking his players from the Viper Room to the Four Seasons.
To do this Molly cozies up to Player X (Michael Cera) — alleged to be an unappetizing amalgam of Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Ben Affleck — and other undesirables known for their poker skill, like Harlan (Bill Camp), or their propensity to lose willingly, like Bad Brad (Brian d’Arcy James).
Charming Irish schmuck Douglas Downey (Chris O’Dowd) is the man we wish we had a film about. He conflates Molly with the beloved in James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and artfully misquotes the famous Robert Frost line, “Two roads emerged from the woods.” In one of the best exchanges in the film he asks Molly, “Do you like poetry?” and she replies, “I did until a second ago.”
As an “anti-wife,” the Cinemax version of herself, Molly often looks like a lad magazine centerfold, especially when donning spectacles to do the books. She compares herself to Circe — the Greek goddess of magic — but one must dig deep into Bullfinch’s to find the part where Circe’s leered at by a bunch of skeezy Spartans.
Spending six days a week surrounded by gambling addicts, Molly’s eventually a drug addict herself, mashing a mixture pills with a mortar and pestle to stay awake. She is, inadvertently, money laundering for the Russian mob, for guys who can grab a Manet off the wall and leave it with Molly as collateral while they play.
The poker sequences are not very interesting, with the standard array of bad beats and chip rakes and rich fools doing what Molly terms “sharecropper math.” With all the cash flying around, it’s surprising how long it takes for things to get violent, but they do, and Molly suddenly faces death threats, a federal indictment and the unreality of her life.
Enter Elba as Charlie Jaffey, Molly’s lawyer, a man so charming and skilled you’d consider committing a felony just so he might defend you. He makes his daughter write essays on “The Crucible” and still whips off his reading glasses just like Stringer Bell in “The Wire.”
His demanding father is a pleasant contrast to Molly’s helicopter dad (Kevin Costner) a psychologist on the couch and drill sergeant on the slopes who pushed his daughter too far. “If you look down, that’s where you’ll go!” he shouts at Molly in a flashback about the time she developed rapid onset scoliosis.
With all men, Molly adapts a feisty, answer-a-question-with-a-question conversational style, very much in the wheelhouse of writer and (first-time) director Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin, who has recently given us a litany of stories about brilliant white men — “The Social Network” (Mark Zuckerberg), “Moneyball” (Billy Beane), “Steve Jobs” (Steve Jobs) — changes the formula and gives us a portrait of a brilliant white woman.
‘Molly’s Game’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated R. Running time 2:20. Visit cinemawest.com.