Dir. Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera
I was in the bag for Molly’s Game before I’d even walked into the cinema. I’m a huge Aaron Sorkin fan. Whether it’s his movie screenplays; The Social Network and Steve Jobs being amongst my favourite films of the last decade; or his television writing; I loved both The West Wing and The Newsroom. So whenever a new Aaron Sorkin movie comes out, anticipation is high. Molly’s Game of course marks Sorkin’s directorial debut, so knowing what magic he can conjure up with words I was interested to see what he could do with images.
Molly’s Game is the story of Molly Bloom. An exceptional woman from a family of exceptional children. An Olympic level skier until an accident puts an end to her career. With a place at Harvard waiting for her, she takes a year off to find herself. First working in a bar at LA, which leads to a job as an assistant. She soon starts running private poker games for her boss, games which are attended by all of Hollywoods elite. Earning thousands of dollars a night through tips, she prepares for her eventual firing by setting up her own private game, one which she would turn into a multi-million dollar business. The framing device for the film is a court case. Set two years after Molly has stopped running poker games, she is being indicted for her connections with the Russian mob. Molly claims she never knew they were mob, but she’ll have to convince the judge and her own lawyer, Idris Elba.
There is a lot to admire about Molly’s Game. First of all there is the amount of information supplied in such a short amount of time. This of course is where Sorkin built his career, with whippet quick dialogue, which manages to be witty, intelligent, informative, and laugh out loud funny, all at the same time. There’s a lot to digest, but it’s never less than entertaining, and never drags. Stylistically it comes across as The Wolf Of Wall Street meets The Big Short. The latter being an obvious influence at the beginning of the film, with Jessica Chastain’s voiceover being cut to images of stock footage, and the way that poker is explained to the audience. That’s another plus of the film, you don’t have to know anything about poker to understand what’s going on, and Sorkin doesn’t waste time trying to explain the basics of poker to novices.
Jessica Chastain is fantastic in this film. Her career as a leading lady hasn’t always gone to plan, but she is never less than watchable, and here you can tell she’s enjoying herself with this character, and the fantastic dialogue. In fact all the actors seem to relish the opportunity to use Sorkin’s words. Best of all are the scenes between Chastain and Idris Elba, in possibly his best big screen role yet. If there’s a weak link amongst the cast it’s Michael Cera, who doesn’t really register in his moments on-screen.
I mentioned The Wolf Of Wall Street earlier, and I do think that it’s a good comparison. Where Sorkin’s directorial style doesn’t have the kinetic energy of Scorsese’s film, I did enjoy the story more. Sorkin does well to show us the glamour of the poker lifestyle. The man cave that Molly built is full of good food, fine wine, and beautiful women, but Sorkin also shows the dark side of gambling; the lives ruined, and the addiction. The Wolf Of Wall Street was criticised for never judging Leonardo Dicaprio’s character Jordan Belfort, he was an asshole who ever stopped being an asshole, whereas Molly is inherently a good person who got lost along the way. She’s easier to route for.
The film doesn’t quite knock it out the park though, and there were a few elements which I had issues with. We hear a lot of characters tell us that Molly is a caring person, who won’t even help herself if it means hurting others, but all we see is a couple of attempts to talk to punters who are perhaps gambling a bit too much. We don’t see her really connect with any other characters, which can make her come across as quite cold, and lessens the impact of the emotional climax. Another problem I had was with Kevin Costner, playing Molly’s father. He’s a psychologist, and shows up out of nowhere in the third act to explain to Molly, and us, why she’s like she is. This scene did feel a little forced, and a bit on the nose. Again, if this was handled better it would have had a deeper emotional resonance.
Overall, I found the film really engrossing. I enjoyed watching the story unfold, and I could spend all day just listening to Sorkin’s dialogue. I felt he made a really solid effort at his directorial debut, but the film didn’t quite deliver on the initial promise. The fast cuts of the opening act soon give way to a more traditional method of filmmaking that don’t quite sustain that initial momentum.