“I was raised to be a champion. My goal was to win. At what and against whom? These were just details.”
At a time where Star Wars, Thor: Ragnarok, and Justice League still have their collective hands deep in the box-office coffers, Aaron Sorkin has the goods for older audiences. Many looking for an escape from the splash pages. Molly’s Game is everything a cinephile could dream of: Jessica Chastain sparing against a very talented ensemble with whip-fast dialogue and burns that need a moment to register. Then throw in Idris Elba–my God who doesn’t like him?–and to clinch the deal for every plain-grey-tee-wearing, baseball-loving quadrant of moviegoers, Kevin Costner. The cherry on top of this adult, alternative winter must-see? The film chronicles the true story of Molly Bloom, the Olympian-turned-“Poker Princess”, who was arrested in 2013 for running illegal poker rings.
Molly Bloom ever of analytical mind didn’t and couldn’t have foreseen a mishap as unlikely as hitting a twig so precisely as to lose a ski mid-run on her Olympic trial. The resulting disqualification is one more disappointment to her overbearing father (Kevin Costner). Already overshadowed by her intensely successful brothers, Jeremy (Olympic skier and NFL player) and Jordan Bloom (cardio-thoracic medicine), Molly takes a sabbatical in Los Angeles as a cocktail waitress. The job is meant to be a break before she starts law school, but soon Molly’s leveraging her assistantship into masterminding underground poker games for the world’s most influential men. Making $3,000 in one night puts law school squarely in her rearview, but Molly isn’t content with merely scheduling these games. Through some crafty maneuvering, and with the assistance of a high-roller referred to as Player X (played by Michael Cera) for legal purposes, Molly steals the high-stakes game away from her employer completely.
Flash forward several years and Molly is facing RICO charges that could put her away for decades. It turns out that the Russian mafia found their way into her coveted trade, making all of her gains illicit. Penniless, Molly seeks out a lawyer without even a hint of impropriety, which leads her to defense attorney Charlie Jaffey (Elba). Jaffey is more than aware of Molly’s reputation as the “Poker Princess”, which is why he’s skeptical that a woman as researched as his potential client didn’t know better. Jessica Chastain has turned in such output that it has become easy to overlook her work. But her work here as Molly Bloom might be her greatest performance to date. The actress has had spotlights before in Zero Dark Thirty and Miss Sloane, but neither film’s script gave her the backing she needed to truly deliver that standout moment that they play in your Oscar reel when you’re gone. A measured performance that’s equal parts intimidating and seductive.
The only thing halting the momentum of Molly’s Game is a majority of the poker sets. We’re told that Player X and Molly have great chemistry, but very little of it comes through. Even when a big pot is at risk, Molly is sitting behind the table, scrolling through the web searching for something to keep herself occupied while the marathons roll into the early morning. Once Molly steps into Jaffey’s office, the film picks right back up. Despite a few of Elba’s actorly tweaks, Sorkin’s trademark dialogue doesn’t lose any of its rat-a-tat-pace with Elba adapting a more laid back persona. If anything it makes Chastain’s machine gun delivery stand out even more. Chastain has worked alongside great actors, but none were more suited for verbal clashing than Idris Elba. Viewers should expect nothing less from Sorkin than dazzling wordplay, and Chastain and Elba make it look easy. They make hurling barbs, accusations, and zingers look like the fancy footwork that Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire brought to Hollywood all those years ago.
Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut is everything good and bad that audiences would come to expect from the Academy-Award-winning wordsmith. His batting average as a film writer sits at 1.000, but the words are missing the accompanying joie de vivre that visual artists like David Fincher and Danny Boyle provide. The images for one of the most harrowing moments of Molly’s life are visualized and framed like a Prozac commercial. Without someone to butt heads with, Sorkin’s words don’t get the interesting visual companion they deserve.
Another director might have also saved Sorkin from a late reunion with Molly and her father (Costner). For a film that prides itself on being “based on a true story”, Molly’s Game may as well put up a freeze-frame for a last-minute revelatory chat with her father. It’s too coincidental, too easy. Too much like the dramatic misfires from HBO’s Newsroom. Yet, there’s nothing here to suggest that Sorkin couldn’t figure his way out around behind the camera eventually. One thing’s for sure: whatever Sorkin does next, he needs to bring Jessica Chastain along for the ride.