MOLLY’S GAME: 2 ½ STARS

If “Molly’s Game” wasn’t a true story it would be unbelievable.

Jessica Chastain plays Molly Bloom, a one-time Olympic class skier sidelined by injury. Leaving the slopes behind she found her way into the world of high stakes poker but not as a player, as a purveyor. In Los Angeles and then again in New York she cultivated a guest list of rich and powerful men of movie stars, Russian mobsters and Wall Street hedge funders. They bet, lost (and sometimes won) millions of dollars, catered to by drink slinging models and Bloom’s huge line of credit. With the game come wealth, drug addiction and ultimately, an FBI arrest for a variety of charges. Money seized, drug addiction kicked, all the Poker Queen has left is her integrity and a supportive criminal defense lawyer in the form of Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba).

Written by ninety-words-a-minute screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (who also directed), coats the unlikely tale of a dedicated athlete who uses the dedication and skill she developed in her sport to create a new life for herself with an elegant sheen. The dialogue is top notch, the performances very good but it’s all surface. The psychology—her father (Kevin Costner) is a pontificating psychologist—doesn’t provide the kind of depth we need to truly care about Molly, before or after her downfall. She’s all ambition and little else. Chastain breathes life into her, rattling off Sorkin’s impressive dialogue, ripe with pop culture references, mythology and bon mots, but it’s the performance that illuminates the character for the audience, not the script.

Sorkin doesn’t exactly deal “Molly’s Game” a bad hand but he does bog down the story with clever asides and details instead of moving the plot forward. Aside from Bloom, his characters are all sharp-tongued creations whose personalities become increasingly interchangeable as the same Sorkin-esque style of witty dialogue spills from all their lips.

In many ways “Molly’s Game” overplays its hand. It’s neither a searing indictment of high-stakes illegal gambling nor a psychological study of its main character. Instead it’s a pair of deuces when it should have been a full house.

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD: 3 ½ STARS

“All the Money in the World,” a new true crime drama from director Ridley Scott, unwittingly became a talking point in the #MeToo conversation when disgraced star Kevin Spacey was disappeared from the film, replaced by Christopher Plummer. The ripped-from-the-headlines tale of ageing oil tycoon J. Paul Getty’s refusal to pay any ransom after his grandson’s kidnapping made headlines itself for the eleventh hour recasting. Question is, was the all the trouble worth it?

Set in 1975, the film begins with a pulse racing sequence that sees sixteen-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation to his co-star) plucked from the streets of Rome and thrown into a van by the Communist Red Brigade kidnapping gang lead by Cinquanta (Romain Duris).

The family patriarch, tetchy tightwad J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), denies the Calabrian mob’s demand for a $17 million ransom, in part because he suspects his grandson may have had a role in planning his own abduction and, more importantly, because he feels he’ll become an ATM machine (although they didn’t exist yet) for every kidnapper brave enough to scoop up one of his 14 grandkids. “My Gramps wasn’t just the richest man in the world,” explains Getty III, “he was the richest man in the history of the world.”

Months later, the stakes are raised all round when Getty III’s severed ear shows up in the mail. As former CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) investigates “Bring him back as quickly and inexpensively as you can,” he is told. The young Getty’s mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) appeals to Getty senior’s better nature.

Based on the book “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty” by John Pearson, “All the Money in the World” is a handsomely made, if not terribly deep, thriller. Scott can stage an action scene and build tension but the real star here is Plummer. As “the old one with the money” he delivers the second example this year after “The Man Who Invented Christmas” as to why he was perhaps born to play Ebenezer Scrooge. The sensational aspect of the casting aside, he hands in a performance that is one part doddering grandpa, one part cold-blooded shark. When he says, “There’s very little in life worth paying full price for,” in reference to his grandson it sounds like something your grandfather might have said. When he refuses to pay the ransom until he realizes it could be a tax deduction, it sends a chill down the spine.

Wahlberg doesn’t fare as well. He may be the film’s biggest star but he’s miscast as the calculating ex-CIA agent. Williams is better, all compassion and determination.

By the end credits it’s obvious that “All the Money in the World” isn’t simply a real life crime story but a timely gaze into the lives of the super rich. “We look like you,” says Getty III, “but we are not like you.”