6.5 out of 10
Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom
Directed by Aaron Sorkin
Molly’s Game Review:
I don’t like country music. That’s not a knock on the form; it’s just not for me. I understand how the opposite is true for other people, and why, but as a non-fan a country song has to do more than just accurately hit the key elements of the genre to get more than an shrug. That is a bar to be understood and aware of when taking something new in – ‘do I like it only because it’s the kind of thing I like?’ I say that to say this: I like Aaron Sorkin movies the way I don’t like country music.
Even people who are not fans of Sorkin’s particular style of screenwriting should be willing to admit he is a skilled craftsman; an architect who builds well-designed, well-executed cathedrals even if he does have too much of a fondness for flying buttresses. But is sheer craft enough to move a creation from the realm of briefly enjoyable to ‘work of art’? (That’s a troublesome phrase for a different set of reasons, but we’ll just leave that for now). Whether he meant to or not, Molly’s Game turns out to be the perfect test for that question. It is Sorkin at his Sorkin-est in the best and worst of ways.
The Molly is Molly Bloom (Chastain), a former Olympic skier who – after a fantastic accident – rebuilds her life as the host of the most exclusive underground poker game (the Game) in the world. Hosting bankers, billionaires, movie stars and art dealers, the games were as much about being part of an exclusive club and lifestyle as they were about winning and losing, and Molly Bloom was the maestro at the center of it all. And because millions of dollars were changing hands clandestinely, eventually someone went to jail. A lot of someones. And with her own day in court fast approaching, Molly Bloom and her very expensive lawyer (Elba) are hoping she doesn’t join them.
Adapted from the real Molly Bloom’s book about her years as an underground poker maven, Molly’s Game is firmly focused on Sorkin’s favorite main character type – the person of skill building the world they want with nothing to help them but their giant brains and knowledge of musical theater lyrics. From top of his Harvard Law class Dan Kaffee to Noble Laureate President Jeb Bartlett to television inventor Philo Farnsworth to Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, it is an archetype which has long fascinated Sorkin and Molly Bloom sits easily among them. A world-ranked Olympic skier with an offer to attend Harvard Law, Molly has a plan to conquer the world and the grit to follow through. The plan takes a hiatus when a freak accident at the Winter Olympics nearly paralyzes her and sends her to California to take stock, but the grit remains and before long Molly has built her empire – just not the one she thought.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Chastain digs into the part as if it were made for her, which it frequently seems like it is. From Molly’s uber-confident front-facing persona to the cracks revealing the conflicted soul underneath, birthed through childhood conflict, watching her new life consume her whole every beat is one Chastain has played before. But if Molly’s Game doesn’t force her to stretch, it does take advantage of what she does and there is great joy to be had in watching a seasoned pro be put through their paces. It’s very much the same for Idris Elba’s Charlie Jaffey, although he does get the continuous fun of being the one to puncture Molly’s carefully built-up defenses and remind her of unpleasant truth she tries to avoid.
No one else gets quite the same workout, but then all the other characters are pastiches and compressions of the various players who flitted in and out of Molly’s games over a five-year stretch, so their role is one of speed not depth. It’s not helped by the film’s need to slightly alter the very real people from the book (even as it points out how Molly was specifically paid to name names and the ethical qualms she had about doing so), so that you won’t realize that Michael Cera’s Player X is actually Tobey Maguire.
Also, as it shouldn’t surprise anyone, they all have to say a lot of words.
This isn’t a bad thing. A quick perusal of the best films ever made will find a plurality have been lauded for their screenplays first and foremost. As important as visual storytelling is, narrative film is still a world of the word. In his directorial debut, while Sorkin maintains firm control of his narrative and point of view (hint: it’s always Molly), it’s also clear that there isn’t much of his voice being lost in the hands of other filmmakers. Molly’s Game isn’t undiluted Sorkin, because we’ve always gotten that to one degree or another.
Which means there are also a lot of other things in Molly’s Game that shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Sorkin’s work or even has just been in the next room a few times while a show of his was on. There are a lot of quirky, fun scenes early on, which seem important but turn out to be partial diversions to ‘the real problem.’ The real problem once again relates to a demanding father (Costner) and the trauma he inflicted coming back up at inopportune moments. And there are important therapy sessions which cause perfectly-timed (and executed!) breakthroughs.
To be clear, Molly’s Game is not Aaron Sorkin Mad Libs, at least in part because it is based on a real person’s life, but there is a whiff of the familiar to it that can’t be avoided. If that’s the kind of thing you like, you’re going to like it. If it’s not you’re going to be unable to avoid the void at the center of Molly’s story, which hinges heavily on the argument that for all the bad decisions she made, she shouldn’t be penalized because she is a good person as proved by the fact that she didn’t rat out her players.
Like even middling Sorkin fare that problem is mostly invisible, hidden by sweeping monologues, well-crafted jokes and some fine acting. Whatever it’s aim was is lost as well, but sometimes the skill is enough, even without any inspiration.