The are so many aspects to Molly’s Game that basically require any self respecting cinephile purchase a ticket. First off, it’s Aaron Sorkin. The dude has put decades worth of incredible dialogue into the cinematic lexicon. Even his least successful scripts are still chock full of inconic zingers. Second, it’s a showcase for a handful of A-list performers who have yet to chew on his considerable wordsmithery. Third, it’s his directorial debut. After standing alongside a veritable who’s who of auteurs, it’s now time to see not just what Sorkin has learned from the masters, but if his personal connection to the page offers something that perhaps other filmmakers couldn’t?
So yeah, Molly’s Game, whether I now declare it to be good or bad, is worth seeing. And here comes the part where I make my declaration…
It’s good! Hooray! Merry Christmas!
The caveat: I wish somebody else directed it.
No, it’s not that Sorkin doesn’t do a good job, it’s just that his sense of style is not a visual one. He’s a writer, not a photographer. That said, he’s spent so long in the business that of course he’s able to direct competently. There are little flourishes here and there that are clearly borrowed from the filmmakers with whom he has previously worked, but as for his own stamp, there is none. This is fine. Molly’s Game would certainly benefit from the flashiness of Danny Boyle, the crispness of David Fincher, or the grandiose staging of Rob Reiner, but none of it is required. Sorkin’s job was to create a clean, operational vessel for his script, and in that sense, mission accomplished.
Molly’s Game began its life as a book by the titular Molly Bloom, an aaaalmost Olympic skier who, after a career ending injury, began a new life as the mastermind behind a series of private, high-stakes poker games for New York and LA elites. For a variety of reasons her successful empire fell, and it’s in this wake that her book was penned. Sorkin’s script pulls the lens back further than its source by exploring Molly’s life in relative full, with the bulk of the film concerning the legal troubles resultant of her career path, and her fight to find a way back on top. The book itself is very much a part of the film, so naturally this is not a straight adaptation. But who wants that?
Jessica Chastain plays adult Molly from her twenties to the present day, and it’s a joy to watch her age through the role using performance rather than excessive makeup/costuming. It’s a task she takes on in addition to the difficult task of keeping pace with the speed of Sorkin’s dialogue. Sharing many of her scenes is Idris Elba, as Charlie Jaffey, the high-powered lawyer who takes Molly’s case on a gamble. I’ll start by saying that hearing Elba say “Charlie Jaffey” is a distinct pleasure unto itself, and i’ll follow up by saying that he too brings the dialogue more than just a slick read. He gets the “you can’t handle the truth” moment of the film, and delivers it better than I could imagine anyone else doing.
Molly and Charlie bond and clash over the fact that they both have an unshakeable ethical code. There are certain pieces of information that Molly simply will not share, despite the promise of lawyer/client confidentiality. These are the same pieces of information that Jaffey requires in order to mount a strong defense in a case that appears to be a loser. Their mutual frustration is matched only by their mutual respect, which provides an arc for the framing device – namely, the building of Molly’s case. Interwoven through the narrative are flashbacks to Molly’s childhood, in which she and her mother suffer under the cruel tutelage of her father (Kevin Costner, as himself). Yes, that wording was a small allusion to Kill Bill. Good catch. The real fun, however, are the poker scenes. One needn’t have any knowledge of the game to follow the story, partially because on screen graphics help to explain the more notable hands, but mostly because the concern of these scenes is very rarely the game itself. Instead, they exist to show how Molly’s games went from a thing of intense structure to a legally dubious mess, resultant of drug abuse, greed, and ego … mostly by her customers.
Michael Cera plays Player X, an unnamed celebrity who plays high stakes poker not because he wants to make money, but because he “likes to ruin lives.” It is left up to our imagination to figure out who he and other players are meant to represent in the real world, but per Sorkin, Player X is an amalgamation of Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Tobey Maguire. The film isn’t interested in throwing any of these celebrities under the bus, but I feel I should mention it because Cera is channeling Tobey Maguire pretty hardcore, and watching his performance knowing that’s what he’s going for makes it that much more enjoyable; that much more chilling. Cera’s usually MO of funny/awkward translates well to funny/scary. If ever a celebrity would appear to be of limited range, it’s Cera, but he continues to surprise.
Thematically Sorkin isn’t really exploring very new territory, but it proves fresh in that his lead character is a woman. Daddy issues are different for women, as are the pitfalls of ego. By placing Molly into a world where male ego is par for the course (and she is unwittingly an object of lust), it feels like a new thing to watch how our protagonist is able to tap into and exploit male weaknesses which typically present as strengths. Chastain is doing a less cartoonish version of last year’s Miss Sloane – a fast talking, powerful woman – and imbuing her with motivation and empathy. She puts on a hell of a show.
Molly’s Game is a strong debut from one of Hollywood’s most enduring scribes. It’s a solid work that showcases most of what we love about Sorkin’s work (and a little of what we hate), while giving a new roster of tremendous actors the chance to vociferate his brand of whipsmart dialogue. It could use some cleanup here and there (I could lose twenty minutes, no sweat, starting with the tonally incongruent bookends), but what movie couldn’t? Molly’s Game is everything you’d expect from the pedigree it carries.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.