Aaron Sorkin is a member of that elite cadre of scriptwriters whose name alone is enough to have actors groveling at his feet for a chance to speak his dialogue. With Molly’s Game, Sorkin not only delivers one of his signature speed-speaking scripts, he also steps behind the camera as director for the first time in his career.
Molly’s Game is based on the memoir of the same name by Molly Bloom, a one-time Olympic hopeful who decided to apply her immeasurable ambition and drive to the world of underground poker when her athletic career was cut short by injury. As embodied by Jessica Chastain – an actress as strong-willed as the character she portrays – Molly Bloom lights the screen on fire. But once the ashes settle, one is left feeling unsatisfied with Molly’s story.
A Seat at the Table
Molly Bloom is a freestyle skier who is competing for a spot in the Olympics when an unlucky accident brings on early and unanticipated retirement. Instead of attending law school as she had planned post-Olympics, Molly crashes on a friend’s couch in Los Angeles and decides to enjoy the freewheeling youth she never got to have as a competitive athlete.
Molly quickly goes from hawking overpriced bottles of liquor at a swanky club to serving as the underappreciated personal assistant of one of the clubgoers, Dean (Jeremy Strong), who takes out his incredible insecurity about his status in the world of the rich and famous on Molly through a variety of verbal and emotional abuse. Yet when Dean invites Molly to organize his weekly underground poker game – with a buy-in of no less than ten grand – Molly embraces the high stakes of the challenge.
Using little more than Google and her own incomparable wits, Molly makes Dean’s game the place to be for Hollywood’s elite, using the incredible tip money she receives to improve her image – increasingly expensive, curve-hugging dresses become her suit of armor – and the caliber of players she can recruit for the game.
Eventually Molly seizes Dean’s game and makes it her own, becoming the “poker princess” of first Los Angeles and then New York. However, when a set of Russian mobsters who have frequented her poker tables are indicted, Molly is swept into the case right along with them – despite not having run a game in more than two years and having had all of her assets previously seized by the government.
Molly turns to a compassionate defense attorney, Charles Jaffey (Idris Elba) and attempts to tell her side of the story. Yet there’s only so much she’s willing to tell, and her reluctance to throw her former players under the bus for the sake of getting her charges dropped could be her ultimate undoing.
All Talk and Little Action
Jessica Chastain has built a career out of playing strong, complex and unabashedly feminist female characters, to the point that if one sees her name above the title of the film, one can expect it to not disappoint in regards to its portrayal of women. And while Molly’s Game does unfortunately disappoint at times, Chastain’s performance is a charismatic career highlight.
Molly Bloom is a complicated woman who seems simultaneously loose in her morals (enabling gambling addicts through her poker games) and incredibly upright in them (refusing to turn over her hard drives for fear that the information on them could destroy the lives of the people who frequented her games over the years). She’s hard to pin down, and while this works in that it shows us Molly is so much more than simply a “good girl” or “bad girl”, it backfires in that one isn’t able to get close enough to her to be truly invested in her story.
Despite this, Chastain wrestles Sorkin’s dizzying dialogue into submission and imbues her character with a humanity that a lesser actress might have struggled to achieve. Surrounded by capable supporting actors such as Elba, Michael Cera (as a creepy Hollywood actor who attempts to seize control of Molly’s game), and Chris O’Dowd (as an alcoholic gambling addict who introduces Molly to the mob), Chastain outshines them all.
Sorkin’s typically verbose script, including a mile-a-minute voiceover from Chastain that lasts for the film’s entire 140-minute running time and ensures that the script must have rivaled War and Peace in length, gives its female protagonist more dialogue than likely all of the female characters in Sorkin’s other feature film scripts (The Social Network, Moneyball, Steve Jobs and so on) combined.
Yet even as you’re carried away on the tidal wave of the film’s dialogue, and especially Chastain’s fierce, unapologetic delivery of it, you can’t help but feel underwhelmed. Sorkin jumps around in time, from Molly’s intensely competitive childhood to her time running games to the predicament of the indictment and back again; as a result, the story feels muddled and lacking in motivation. In addition, despite focusing his script on a powerful female antihero, Sorkin too often relies on the actions of the men around her to move the story forward.
Towards the end of the film, Molly’s therapist father, portrayed by Kevin Costner in a performance that is surprisingly feeling when it isn’t excessively patronizing, gives Molly an impromptu session that culminates in him telling her that she did it all in order to have power over powerful men; he essentially chalks up her entire whirlwind career as a millionaire poker entrepreneur to “daddy issues.” Molly denies it, of course, but the film doesn’t delve any deeper into what her motivations may have been instead. Is it more upsetting to think that an ambitious woman like Molly Bloom was driven solely by her issues with her father, or that she wasn’t driven by any particular reason at all?
Neither are satisfying conclusions to draw, but Sorkin doesn’t give us much of a choice in the matter. The audience spends over two hours with Molly Bloom, and thanks to Chastain, you will find yourself rooting for her and admiring her ability to stick to her guns in the face of adversity, ranging from spoiled Hollywood actors to violent mob henchmen – essentially, the entire gamut of unpleasant men who are unable to deal with an ambitious woman. Even so, by the end of the film, Molly Bloom still feels like a stranger.
Conclusion: Molly’s Game
Molly’s Game is a prime showcase for one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses, but the film as a whole doesn’t live up to Chastain’s fiery performance. A lot is said, but very little sticks with you after the end credits roll.
What do you think? Does Molly’s Game sound like a winning hand for Sorkin, or a bit of a letdown? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Molly’s Game was released in the U.S. on December 25, 2017 and in the UK on January 1, 2018. You can find more international release dates here.
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