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When gambling on talent isn’t that much of a gamble at all

Jessica Chastain (left) plays Molly Bloom in her new drama with Idris Elba (right)

By T.T. Sterns-Enzi

We’ve never seen a protagonist quite like Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), because screenwriter-director Aaron Sorkin has never written for a female character like this. Of course, some of the credit belongs, deservedly, to the real-life Molly Bloom, the former Olympic level skier who survived a career-and-life-threatening injury, and embarked on an even more death-defying adventure: high-stakes poker.

“Molly’s Game,” the new film adapted from her book, finds Sorkin operating in the sweetest sweet spot he’s likely to ever achieve. The narrative races through Bloom’s life—from the speed bump on the slopes, to her apprenticeship in the seedy underground world of poker games, to her transformation of the scene into an exclusive, and quite dangerous, playground for the 1 percent of the high-risk-takers (and some of the dumbest schlubs with money to burn) the world will never know anything more about than this film will show us. Sorkin demands that we keep up with Bloom’s faster-than-the-speed-of-thought interior monologue, or else we get left in the dust.

The only thing that will save the stragglers is the voice and attitude of Chastain, who proves capable of dragging us over hot coals and across the frozen tundra, before dipping us into an active volcano and yanking us out without losing a single piece of flesh. Chastain isn’t so much telling us what’s going on in either the scenes or inside that beautiful mind of hers, as she’s truly showing us just how damned special this kind of performance can be. In lesser hands, “Molly’s Game” would be all tell, all the time, because Sorkin is running at top speed through scenarios where Bloom is getting a hands-on education in the school of life and providing her own professorial commentary as it happens.

I chuckled to myself during the Toronto press screening of the film, enjoying how Sorkin works his version of Quentin Tarantino magic. The difference here is that while Sorkin can indeed pepper his dialogue with hip pop cultural references, he’s locked into the technical aspects of high-stakes poker and its jazzy rhythms. He makes the game relevant to neophytes, the would-be dreamers who have spent a few nights watching competitions on ESPN, and the film geeks hungry for a bigger win than the penny ante stakes of movies like “Rounders” and “21.”

Fortunately, there’s a huge and quite meaningful cheat for everyone else in the mix too, in the form of Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), the only attorney able and willing to take on Bloom’s case once the FBI trains its sights on her. After a decade running one of the most successful games on the planet—which she builds from the ground up—she winds up staring down 17 agents with automatic weapons drawn, ready to take everything away from her and throw her into a hole. It seems she has had elite Hollywood stars, athletes, industry titans, and Russian mobsters seated at her tables, and the government wants to use her to take down whomever it can.

We come to realize that the entire film has, to some extent, been Bloom’s pitch to Jaffey, in an attempt to get him to defend her. Elba and Chastain create the kind of delicious sparks that everyone assumed and expected to see in Elba’s pairing with Kate Winslet in “The Mountain Between Us,” another TIFF selection. Yet, “Molly’s Game” isn’t a weepy and sentimental romantic piffle. You realize right off the bat that neither of these characters are looking for a groovy kind of love to save them.

But both of them are in need of redemption. It is all-too obvious what that means for Bloom. She’s down to her last life line, and even when her father (Kevin Costner in his sagest turn to date) makes a late appearance, there’s nothing he can offer her to make things right. And Jaffey, who has only a few fleeting moments to earn a hint of a backstory, tries to play it cool, as if to say that he doesn’t need this case to prove anything about himself and his ability. Elba shows us, in Jaffey’s climactic argument with the Feds, just how desperate he is too.

Nothing and no one even matters, in the final analysis of the film. You’ve got Chastain, Elba, and Sorkin betting on themselves and each other. A big win is always a game changer.

Rating: PG-13; Grade: B+