Director: Aaron Sorkin
Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O'Dowd, Bill Camp
Runtime: 140 Minutes
For a time in which it’s becoming increasingly difficult to want to root for individuals earning excessive amounts of money through morally duplicitous means and blowing their earning load in a shower of wealthy spectacle for all the world to see, trust writer – and now writer/director – Aaron Sorkin to manage to make at least one protagonist in cinema this year coving such ground likable.
Although based on the memoir of the same name by Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former American poker entrepreneur who became the target of an FBI investigation of her underground poker empire for Hollywood celebrities, athletes, business tycoons, and the Russian mob, Sorkin seems to have been drawn to the project not because of the powerful game she was playing with the men under her wing, but because Molly’s story only gets more interesting after the book ends.
Written shortly before her arrest by the FBI and the more elaborate reasoning behind the seizing of her funds being acknowledged, Sorkin staggers his screenplay across the bulk of her personal text and the fleshed-out details of what happened after through a flashback structure depicting a generic rise-and-fall narrative of a figure starting from the bottom and working her way up to the top.
The difference between Molly’s Game and others of its kind comes down to the manner of execution. Even though he may be very aware of his critical acclaim and success, Sorkin is quite frankly one of the best and sharpest screenwriters in Hollywood and his work here doesn’t disappoint. His dialogue fires in a manner that is so typically him, managing to balance multiple characters with a walk-and-talk approach that feels distinctly written but flows naturally and organically from the mouths of actors who come in prepared to handle it and not stray far from the written words.
Over the past five years, Jessica Chastain has pretty much perfected her role as the steely hearted professional woman in a world dominated by men (see Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Violent Year or Miss Sloane), and while this might not be her definitive role as such an archetypical character its certainly one of her most fun characters and strongest performances. Molly is an exquisitely manipulative and intelligent presence and Chastain dominates the frame by managing everything about her physical and emotional being into becoming the idealised want for every powerful man that walks into her gaze.
To call the movie radical would be an exaggeration, but it is ultimately feminist in intention and even though the way the camera gawps at her heavy cleavage and figure throughout (especially in the flashbacks) will be read as objectifying, the ball is nearly always in her court and she is the one making fools of and playing the men in her world against one another. This is a legitimate business for her first, but the tipping of the power balance is a fantastically entertaining way to play its premise.
Its when she starts resorting to drugs, alcohol and taking a substantial percentage of the pot for herself that her downfall begins, but its to do with overreach as she tries to maintain her empire and expand without seeing it collapse in under heavier and more significant clienteles. She’s a sympathetic figure, who knows that even though she’s knowledgeable in her field and extremely resourceful she’s way out of her depth by the end. This is something that Molly's lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) understands, and their chemistry is electric in their scenes together in the present day.
What works less successfully at explaining Molly’s psychology (quite literally) are Sorkin’s detours into her childhood as a former aspiring Olympian, and her relationship with her demanding psychologist father played by Kevin Costner. Costner is excellent in the role, but his scenes and their placement feel like perfunctory afterthoughts spread throughout as unnecessary padding and explanation, including a quick capsule review of proceedings on a park bench near the film’s climax that fills an emotional void, but the film could easily do without to cut down its already excessive runtime.
The other minor issue might be that of first-time director Sorkin himself. He’s not a bad filmmaker by any means, as a first feature it’s a strong and confident piece of work from one of Americas greatest modern writers, but while it looks sharp and expensive it holds no strong aesthetic with a strange approach to sharing visual space in the present-day dialogue conversations.
At times it’s like we’re watching a Wolf of Wall Street clone where the excess is more content over sensory as the frequency of the edit in the flashback scenes chaotically try to make an order out of the glorified nonsense of the game itself, while the court case scenes present-day dialogue conversations play out rather straight and ordinary. This is the intention, but it’s an exemplification that the editing doesn’t flow visually, and it’s a film being driven far more by the script dictating the cuts and not the other way around.
Molly’s Game isn’t going to rewrite anything, but like its main character, it plays its cards carefully without showing too much to give away all integrity. Chastain is spectacular and Sorkin’s distinct flavour of dialogue is endlessly entertaining and tells the story in a compelling way. It’ll be fascinating to see on which side of history it falls in a post-Weinstein world given the real-world celebrities involved (disguised as a composite character played by Michael Cera), and even if it felt it could have been directed by a stronger visionary it’s a convincing and diverting story.