“This is a true story, but except for my own, I’ve changed all the names. I was in a room with movie stars, directors and business titans. They were going all in, all the time. The humiliation had given way to blinding anger at my powerlessness. I wasn’t going to wait before I put a plan in place.”
Some directors present their movies without any real identity, free of a distinct visual style or form. Film critic Ann Hornaday in her book Talking Pictures refers to such directors as “serviceable,” explaining that such artists come in, “are given a script, cast a few actors, and simply shoot, allowing the cinematographer and production designer to do their thing with little input or interest.” Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game may seem to be one of those cases, due to its rather standard production design and cinematography, but looking closer you can see that his style is all over this thing. Sorkin is known for his long and winding monologues and dialogues, and while Jessica Chastain may be the top-billed star of Molly’s Game, the real star of the show is Sorkin himself.
Molly’s Game, adapted from the memoir of the same name by former underground poker host Molly Bloom, tells the story of her meteoric rise from cocktail waitress to one of the leading poker tournament entrepreneurs in New York City. Chastain stars as the lead character, adding another badass woman excelling in a predominantly male field to her résumé, and she plays Molly with a similar cool confidence as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty and Elizabeth Sloane in Miss Sloane. Chastain is right at home delivering Sorkin’s fast-paced, rhythmic dialogue as she battles wits with the smart-talking, sleazy men of the underground poker scene. If there’s anything Sorkin loves, as seen through A Few Good Men, The West Wing, The Social Network and The Newsroom, it’s educated people talking frankly yet verbosely about their situation, and using good old fashioned initiative to solve their problems. We get plenty of this in Molly’s Game, especially when Molly spars with her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba, who gives a good performance despite more than a few accent slips) as they determine how to prevent her from going to jail for decades on end.
Yet, even as the film’s script comes alive in these scenes, it is ultimately what undoes its effectiveness. There is an excessive amount of narration from the very start of the beginning to the end credits, as Molly tells us, the audience, all about her life, everything she’s thinking, everything she’s feeling and personal details about the people she encounters. The famous “show, don’t tell” rule is completely thrown out the window as we are inundated with way more information than we need. The film is a bloated 142 minutes, and I often wondered why I needed an entire paragraph of voiceover when a simple visual could have communicated everything I needed to know. Did I need Molly to explain to me that this prospective poker player carrying a Monet painting came from a rich family that owned art galleries, all of which led up to this poker player offering the painting as collateral? Not really. The film cuts back and forth between Molly’s rise to power and her future troubles with the law, which can be hard to keep up with, but I could not help but feel that Sorkin did not trust the audience to fully grasp everything that was happening at all times.
The story of Molly’s Game is absolutely thrilling and it’s easy to get swept up in Molly’s rapid ascension, and combine that with Sorkin’s meaty dialogue and you have good surface-level entertainment. When the film tries to dig deeper in examining Molly’s independent spirit and grit, it loses its charms, particularly as it relates to Molly’s father Larry (Kevin Costner). All throughout the film we see how Larry pushed Molly to greatness, not with a helpful hand but with a shove. We get sprinklings of their turbulent relationship throughout the film and it’s clear by the end that he is a big part of her hellbent desire to prove herself. There is a scene at the end of the film that is truly preposterous in how it tries to sew everything up between them and left me with a bad taste in my mouth as Molly’s father literally explains to her why she is the way she is. I have no idea if this exchange actually happened in real life, but it stuck out like a sore thumb in the film. Charlie also gets a huge monologue at the end of the film in which he argues for Molly’s innocence in a very theatrical A Few Good Men/The Social Network explosion of words. While these scenes show how much Molly is loved and respected by the people around her, the whole movie feels like it’s building up to Molly defending herself and getting that big moment of her own, which she never really gets it.
Even if I hadn’t know going into Molly’s Game that it was also directed by Sorkin, I would have known by its finale. While the visuals may be “serviceable,” Sorkin’s writing is the true star of this thing. Let’s face it, Sorkin being the director as well as the writer meant there was no way he was editing down his own work and as a result, we get an entertaining ride that values pleasing its audience with charismatic performances and juicy dialogue but also, WAY TOO MUCH dialogue and voiceover work. Sorkin is a very talented writer with countless deserved awards under his belt, but directing is a different animal. Language on the page is very different from the visual language of a movie itself, and it would have been great to see Sorkin channel his brilliant artistry for writing into not only creating a strong visual palette but recognizing when to use to restraint. Molly’s Game is a solid directorial debut from a brilliant screenwriter, with another bravura lead performance from Chastain, but it doesn’t quite live up to its undeniably compelling central figure.
FOR YOUR AWARDS CONSIDERATION:
Best Actress — Jessica Chastain
Best Adapted Screenplay — Aaron Sorkin