⭐ ⭐ / ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The game in question is fire escape tag, a lost summer game played on metal schoolyard stairwells and balconies with a tennis ball, or as all the employees at Strasgh, Polth & Wawl call it, Molly’s game.

Her proficiency the result of years studying alongside the local master, twelve year old Shi Chang, Molly uses the game to dominate her paralegal coworkers and control her friends and family.

Stan Laurels (Ghost World) directs his third film in as many years and this one is the liveliest yet. Getting off to a bang with a reverse tonsillectomy, the procedure is deconstructed, the pace quick: getting our adrenaline pumping early is something Laurels is known for, and the director doesn’t let up for the first third of the film. With high energy courtroom proceedings (featuring penalty shots, pick off moves and alley-oops) keeping things moving, the eye pumping story takes us on a wild thrillride punctuated by the dynamic game itself.

Molly, a former spyglass manufacturer’s critic, sells her excess amniotic fluid on the dark net to colorblind Chinese octagenarians who may or may not be using it to poison the cute kittens on the set of Molly’s daughter’s favorite show. The ensuing investigation into claims brought against the producers of “Nummy Kitty” takes us from the courtroom to the short room where Molly does her best thinking. Her obsessive collection of authentic Las Cruces casino chips (shown) already becoming a problem, she contemplates purses purchased online to curb the chip cravings, all while being an allstar at work, making it stick and wowing the suits.

With terrible accuracy, Molly lays to waste her coworkers’ self esteems, knowing how invested they are in the game she dominates, how much they hate her for that dominance, and how she loves to hold it over them. But they can’t stay away; they’re drawn to the competition like some kind of dna cattle call. By then it’s too late, they’re in Molly’s game now, and she don’t fool around none. Game action is marvelously employed, with the apparent use of real sets and props, and this reviewer welcomes the trend. Using actual sets in the foreground and cgi in the background, along with highly realistic smaller-scale models, digitally copied and modified, they’ve created amazingly lifelike environments and landscapes; a sort of toy train set of an entire world. Whether indoors or out, day or night, the film looks terrific.

Jessica Chapstain (Groundhog Day) is riveting as she slips in and out of her gamefaces, both on the court and in it, while costars Kevin Coshtner and Idris Elbo do well with their butler burlesque, each routine more rancid than the last. The duo’s sordid repartee make for some of the funniest moments, and they play well off Chapstain, who has a great ear for comedy. Her straitlaced, high pressure hilarity is as layered a comedic performance as I’ve seen in years.

It’s the bizarre third act that spoils what was otherwise a very entertaining film about a woman who uses her power for good and evil. All of the momentum built up during the first hour is essentially tossed for tabloid salacity, another hackneyed Wifetime channel tale of violated privacy.

After a courtroom endzone dance, Molly returns home to find her apartment vandalized, her most intimate hiding spaces pilfered. Someone knew where she kept her jar of Floff, her vibrating tennis jacket. Someone had laid out all her embarrassments, all her most private shames on her own bed, leaving her bedroom door open and her nightlight on.

The film never recovers, becoming an unaffecting whodunit instead of the well crafted character study it began as; a shame because that film would probably have been much better.