“The United States vs. Molly Bloom. I bet heavily on the favorite.”
It’s surprising that Aaron Sorkin waited almost three decades to make his directorial debut. The Academy Award-winning screenwriter/TV creator behind The West Wing, The Social Network, A Few Good Men, Moneyball, The American President and Steve Jobs, to name a handful of titles, is one of our most distinguished, acclaimed, recognizable and well-established modern writers. Every screenplay under his name carries his signature cocky bravado, whether or not it’s earned. It wasn’t a matter of if he’d jump into the director’s chair; it was simply a matter of when. The time is now, evidently, with Molly’s Game.
Based loosely on Molly Bloom’s book of the same name, Molly’s Game follows the author, played by Jessica Chastain, as she transforms herself from failed Olympian skier to the millionaire woman running one of the most exclusive, high-stakes poker tables in the world. It’s a film filled with flash and fizzing intensity. Sorkin is never one to waste a second at the pen, and as a filmmaker, his energy/electricity are intensified. It’s also smart as a tack and quick to bounce off a firing string of facts and insults. Yes, this is a Sorkin film. As you might imagine, having Sorkin call the shots on his screenplay bring out his best and worst qualities.
Sorkin, the writer, is polished, taunt, even masterful. As a director, he’s understandably much less defined. His style is very reminiscent of David Fincher (and, in some respects, Danny Boyle). As you’d expect, Molly’s Game is the capper for his true-life story trilogy, with Social Network and Steve Jobs before it. It continues exploring the well-worn themes of fame, legacy, success, failure, acceptance, rejection and bitter isolation that were brought to those fine works. Perhaps because they were all delved to richer depths and lengths before, but those movies, while not quite perfect (well, Social Network gets pretty close…), felt more honest, personal and filled with genuine self-reflection from Sorkin. In some ways, he appears to be going through the motions a bit in Molly’s Game, which makes you wonder if he picked this project more as an opportunity to push himself as a filmmaker than to write something of value and meaning. The result is expectedly strong, and carried with his fiery wit, but not as strong as his other, better accomplishments.
That said, Molly’s Game serves as an excellent opportunity for Sorkin to write a strong female protagonist, something that has been sorely missing from most of his previous works. In that sense, this movie truly succeeds thanks largely to the commitment and vigorous passion brought by Chastain inside the lead role.
Jessica Chastain is a firecracker in Molly’s Game. Not only does she spitfire through Sorkin’s rapid dialogue with the grace of a seasoned Olympian, but she also captures the emotional versatility and fortitude of her titular character with absolute aplomb. It’s a rightfully explosive performance, among her finest yet. Whatever uneasiness Sorkin finds as a director, Molly’s Game is rightfully given surefire assurance with Chastain at the forefront. But she isn’t the only acting standpoint. Idris Elba is equally captivating and commanding as Molly’s attorney, giving another gusto performance with smooth confidence. Elba is an actor who is usually good no matter what material is given, but there’s no denying how good Elba can be when he’s given a great role. Elba reads Sorkin’s wordy monologues with breeziness. He’ss an actor completely in-tune with his craft. One of Molly’s Game best, most rewarding pleasures is watching these two pros go back-and-forth like a ferocious tennis match, that fine rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat style.
In fact, all of the performances in this ensemble are dependably solid, with Kevin Costner as Molly’s seemingly unsympathetic father nearly stealing the show in some select sensitive moments. And while I have some reservations about Michael Cera’s Player X — who is rumored to be Tobey Maguire in real-life — it’s fun to see the undervalued given another chance to play against type like he also did in This is The End. Sorkin proves himself capable of delivering highly exceptional performances. Even if his camera work leaves a bit to be desired, Sorkin thankfully knows how to keep the focus central to his characters and their lively dialogue and monologues. And its speed and fine beats of style give Molly’s Game the high-wire skill it needs to successfully thrill us. But in the end, there’s something oddly missing in Sorkin’s solid debut.
Molly’s Game is a blisteringly quick, nicely stylish and highly entertaining movie from one of our most assured writers, though one that never feels as meaningful or well-defined as Sorkin’s other screenplays. If meant to be seen more as a directing exercise, then it proves that Sorkin has fine potential behind the lens. But it’s not quite as satisfying or ingenious as the other movies and shows attached to his name. As another impressive, exceptional vehicle for Chastain, who is quickly becoming one of our best working actresses, however, it’s a rousing, impressive success, the kind of movie that once again assures us that she’s the real deal. With that, Molly’s Game certainly isn’t a flop, but it’s not the flush it should’ve been.*
*Confession: I know nothing about poker.