Aaron Sorkin, hallowed high priest of hyper-verbalism, is back with Molly’s Game — adapted from Molly Bloom’s book about her meteoric rise running underground poker for captains of industry in Los Angeles and New York … and a swift fall at the hands of G-men and made men, equally well organized.
For the first time, Sorkin also has hopped over to the director’s chair – a simultaneous excitement and concern. Exciting because you know Sorkin will direct the way he writes, a barrage of mainlined movement to match his motor-mouth marathon. Concerning because … well, maybe Sorkin needs someone to step on his product and dilute it. This is 140 minutes of pure, uncut Sorkin – his longest yet.
From the jump of an unexpectedly pulse-pounding prologue, Molly’s Game is supremely entertaining. It unsurprisingly avoids bland poker procedurals or simplified, seductive wine-and-dine on the romance of cards. (You want that? Rounders is still sitting on some streaming service somewhere.)
Instead, it’s a tough-minded, fascinating and fast-moving treatise on the psychology of desperation, the economics of fleecing and being fleeced, the pathology of addiction … and the elusive, ephemeral highs dancing on the edges of all those disasters. Here is a movie that knows a facsimile of a sensation is not an acceptable substitute. It’s also yet another wildly effective script, as illuminating as it is informative at the shocking legal wiggle room in play here while it splashes around in semantic delights.
To use one poker term, though, Molly’s Game could have soared even higher had Sorkin not been quite so pot-committed to pat contentment. More on this in a bit, but one scene near the end threatens to derail everything and Sorkin also doesn’t quite understand this isn’t a send-’em-out-smiling story. It doesn’t ultimately damper what turns out to be another dynamic showcase for Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, two of the best performers working today.
Chastain could have easily fallen into likable, but familiar, ice-queen territory a la last year’s Miss Sloane (to which this looks similar in sheen), but she never lets us forget that Molly evolved from peaks of confidence and valleys of self-doubt. A former competitive skier, Molly understands how best-laid plans often go to shit. She embodies her psychology-professor father’s contradictory blend of honesty and hypocrisy, fomented by good cop, bad-cop parenting that intertwined inferiority and fortitude.
The poker world is a predominantly male herd of rams locking horns, an inherent threat that Molly also internalizes – something against which her taskmaster dad has safeguarded her steely reserve. “Lose the bitchy air,” she’s told. “Lose the superior air.” Here’s one of many instances where Sorkin luxuriates in lexicon to establish theme — air as demeanor … and what men perceive as her raison d’etre, her oxygen. Rest assured: These men – and many more she will meet – will pursue technicalities with which to terraform the mountains of money Molly makes. (Michael Cera is particularly chilling as Player X, a cipher for a famous actor whose torments of the real Molly were said to be far more aggressive.)
In some ways, Molly topples just like some of her most hopeless players – quickly and irreversibly. Can she handle that? This isn’t an obvious case of Proving Men Wrong™ or Overcoming Daddy Issues®. No stranger to drug addiction himself, Sorkin understands how narcotics so easily, and warmly, lay a blanket over complex concerns … deluding you to new forms of cold in which you are left out.
Even Molly’s eventual lawyer, Charles Jaffey (Elba), isn’t an immediate ally. The banter and byplay between Elba and Chastain as they feel each other out morally and ethically is ceaselessly thorny, funny and true. Charles doesn’t shut the door for Molly when they meet for the first time; her laundry is public via the book, he figures, so why stop there? He purposefully puts distance between them in his massive office, a gesture of what he sees as the gulf between their values. He winces when his daughter walks in, afraid of what she’ll take away from even seeing Molly there.
This isn’t Philadelphia, in which Charles’s heart will soften toward his client’s predicament, so much as it is what happens when two shrewd observers of human behavior clash. (Molly had law in her future, too, before the universe changed her plans.) When she runs her hands along a long shelf of laws in Charles’s office, she’s communing not just with the world of order she left behind but the insane number of hurdles erected against her. The scene in which Charles agrees to represent Molly is one of the year’s best – Elba indulging nervous, fidgety movements that make us laugh but also let us see the fear and difficulty Charles finds in this case as well as the reason to fight alongside her.
That is to strike against a world in which debt sheets are traded like subprime mortgages and human lives bulldozed as easily as homes, if the men on either side of the line deem it necessary. The mob of whom she runs afoul attack her. So do those in the courtroom. “Were they call girls? Were you a call girl?” one lawyer barks at Molly about the cabal of equally shrewd businesswomen she employs after a move to New York.
A late monologue in which Elba lets his animosity unspool (and lands a piercing meta joke about a movie star being “too black” to be truly successful) is obviously the bit for Elba, and he nails it. But watch Chastain realize something she’s never quite encountered – the first time a man has neither leveraged her skills nor launched against her.
Not 10 minutes later, Sorkin stumbles with a convenient, contrived bit of showmanship … because you can’t cast Kevin Costner as a domineering dad to not have him spar with his daughter in the present day. It shoves the movie just to the edge of a dime-store psychology cliff that you fear will cheapen all this nuance – a scene of a man fixing her not moments after one has more meaningfully understood her ethics and values. Thankfully, Sorkin catches himself in time, exposing more than just cheap sentiment.
While it hardly ruins the movie, it does sour the remaining 20 minutes, which I’m not sure Sorkin truly understands as a pyrrhic victory – especially not with that whammy-bar guitar music at the end that feels akin more to the goofy theatrics of Con Air than the storytelling sophistication here.
For all of Sorkin’s logorrheic tendencies, it turns out a terse comment from Charles early on sums up a film that mines both simple pleasures and complex characters: “I liked the book. Good story, well told.”