Published on April 24th, 2018 | by Thomas Weinmaster0
Aaron Sorkin sits down in the director’s chair for Molly’s Game, the story of a former Olympic hopeful who built a massive underground poker ring.
If you watch TV or movies, you’ve likely seen something by Aaron Sorkin. His witty, quotable dialogue, as well as techniques such as his trademark “walk-and-talk” (which follows two characters moving through an environment while having a conversation) have propelled movies like A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Moneyball to critical and financial success. Sorkin might be best known as the mastermind behind the NBC drama The West Wing, widely considered to be one of the best shows of all time.
In Molly’s Game, his screenwriting skills are on full display, but for the first time, he is behind the camera as director. Here he takes on the larger-than-life story of Molly Bloom: a former Olympic skiing hopeful who set up one of the largest underground poker rings in America, featuring countless celebrities, businessmen, and even mobsters. Her rise and subsequent fall are now the subject of legend, along with a tell-all book written by Bloom herself.
We are introduced to Bloom (Jessica Chastain) just as the FBI is raiding her apartment, but the story quickly jumps back to her youth as a moguls champion vying for an Olympic berth. Her overbearing father (Kevin Costner) is constantly pushing her toward excellence, which is helpful in explaining her tenacity and resolve. Again we jump to her as an adult, as she builds her poker empire, first at the behest of her pig-headed boss, and then on her own. Molly shows a clear talent for running her operation, despite the interventions of some problem gamblers, and one Player X (Michael Cera), who is determined to use Molly’s game to his own advantage. X is supposedly a composite, but Bloom has let slip that he is mostly representative of Tobey Maguire (of Spider-Man fame), who provided her with much frustration through his greed and disregard for other players.
Lastly, we have our framing story, which involves reluctant barrister Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) helping Bloom to reconstruct her story for her legal defense, and allowing the audience to get the full picture. Jaffey’s character was constructed for the purposes of the screenplay. He is sympathetic to Bloom, and sees the good in her. I believe he is meant to represent audience, or perhaps Sorkin himself, as he understands Molly seemingly better than anyone else.
From a filmmaking perspective, this is just layers of Sorkin. The movie is tied together with almost constant narration from Bloom, easing the jarring timeline transitions that permeate the entire film. Rarely do we spend more than five minutes in a particular time period before jumping forward or back. It is an interesting conceit, as Molly’s past is often used to explain her actions in the future, but these time jumps are so short that we never really get to know the characters, other than our protagonist. They are often reduced to expository tools, poetically stating their motives as in a Shakespearean aside, though they don’t address the audience like Molly does. As such, we are often delivered emotional truths, rather than objective ones. It gives the whole movie a stage-play feel, which considering Sorkin’s stage experience and previous work is not too surprising.
Music is not a priority in the film, and it shows. We get electronic thumps pumping like a heartbeat during intense play scenes, but there is rarely a flourish to be found during emotional crescendos, with Sorkin preferring to let the performances – and Molly’s voiceover – do the talking.
The camera work is quite good, with fast cuts and crash zooms to portray the dizzying mania of the poker games, and slower, wider shots allowing us to relax as Molly is telling her story. Bright, flashy colours saturate the screen at high times, and muted tones pervade as she begins her downward spiral. Visual callbacks to previous scenes – that happen to be in the future chronologically – are a mind-bending treat, and one that I would not expect from a first time director. Surprisingly, I spied only one instance of Sorkin’s famous walk-and-talk, but the movie is propelled along so quickly that more protracted dialogue scenes would have felt out of place.
Performances across the board are solid, despite the aforementioned expositional dialogue. Jessica Chastain is one of the best actors working today, and she plays Bloom with such conviction and charisma that it’s not hard to see why she was Sorkin’s first choice. As both the emotional and moral heart of the movie, she shines. At times we are asked to believe that the 41 year-old Chastain is as young as 19, but that can be forgiven due to the powerhouse performance overall. Idris Elba is calm and cool as usual, and his fatherly affection for Molly gives his character real emotional depth. The supporting cast including Costner, Chris O’Dowd and Cera all give good performances. Bill Camp is great as an over-leveraged gambling addict in dire straits. This is a movie full of professionals, and the proof is in the end product.
Overall, I would certainly recommend Molly’s Game. I’m not sure anyone but Bloom knows how much of it actually happened, but that’s not really the point. The story is designed to remind us that a person’s actions define who they are, even if their vocation doesn’t. Sorkin does an admirable job in his first directorial outing, and even though we get the magnification of his scriptwriting tendencies, it does not overwhelm the production. The narrative is disorienting, but we genuinely care for our protagonist by the time the credits roll. The chaos of a poker game full of whales is captured perfectly, as is the despair of the inevitable downfall. Chastain is incredible as Molly, and supporting performers provide a rich background to work with, even if they are a bit poetic. Those looking for a straightforward narrative with real, down to earth dialogue should know by now to avoid Sorkin’s film work, but in terms of delivering emotional heft and feeling, it would have been difficult to do any other way.