I could use a poker pun here, but that would just be lazy.
I don’t think I can convince my partners to take a flyer on the poker princess.
If you think a princess can do what I did, you’re incorrect.
Aaron Sorkin loves process movies, especially when he can give his characters the opportunity to self-narrate their brilliance every step of the way. Whether it’s Josh Lyman writing public policy in real time or Brad Pitt navigating the MLB trade deadline, Sorkin excels at showing people doing their work well. It’s why all three of his television series have been about professionals (their caliber, of course, is open to debate), and contributes to his own reputation as a perfectionist who also hasn’t met a staffer he can’t patronize to.
Nevertheless, in Molly’s Game he’s found a protagonist every bit as sharp and confident as he imagines himself to be, and not for nothing it’s the first time said protagonist is a woman. (I could psychoanalyze why he also felt this was the time for him to finally step into the director’s chair, but it might be best to let the work speak for itself.) Fortunately, the film is very good, and with Jessica Chastain’s technical brilliance at the center, it’s often great — breezily entertaining, well cast, and feeling much shorter than its 140 minutes.
As the film portrays it, Molly Bloom was on the verge of qualifying for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City when she hit a stick in the snow, lost her ski in mid-air, and crashed hard. Also, as the film portrays it, once Bloom has been indicted — over a decade later — on trumped-up racketeering charges for her underground high-stakes poker ring, her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) only agrees to take her on as a client with the encouragement of his daughter, who had read her tell-some memoir Molly’s Game; it’s a touching scene, because it completes the circle of Molly accidentally becoming an inspiring figure anyway, and ultimately being rewarded for doing the right thing while doing the wrong thing.
In reality however, neither of those events are real; she didn’t quit skiing because of her injury, and Jaffey is fictional. There are other fibs, some major, some minor, but they all serve that elusive writerly purpose of telling the most effective story possible with the material you have to work with. And Aaron Sorkin, taking dramatic license on his fifth-straight biographical screenplay (though the first he’s directing himself), knows how to tell an effective story. But if it all sounds too crazy to be believed, it’s actually the most unbelievable parts that are true. Molly’s Game is a strangely triumphant story of a young woman who, as her hard-driving father (Kevin Costner) puts it in the third act, “built a multi-million dollar company with nothing but her wits.” Molly takes advantage of a fateful opportunity, works incredibly hard, and flies too close to the sun.
Chastain’s narration is near-constant, but mostly necessary; not just to explain all the poker terms flying around in the film’s middle third, but to help us make sense of the web Molly gets drawn deeper into. What starts as a friendly weekly game among the Hollywood elite evolves into a $250K buy-in life-wrecker for the powerful in finance, politics, and eventually, the Russian mafia. As the plot becomes more complex, we cling to Chastain like a life raft, trusting in her calibrated performance to carry us through the parts we don’t understand. Sorkin’s screenplay also functions in two time streams: the “present day” scenes with her and Jaffey, who can’t understand why she wouldn’t give up any dirt on her players in order to save herself, and the Soderbergian “how we got here” sequences of flipped cards, stacked chips, swallowed pills, and dress necklines plunging deeper, deeper.
Chastain is in total control, but the sprawling ensemble tears into Sorkin’s dialogue with relish. Elba is especially terrific, and gets one barn-burner of a speech near the end that ought to put him on Oscar shortlists, but won’t. The best bit of casting is actually Michael Cera as “Player X,” the Hollywood superstar who aids Molly in her empire expansion before turning on her; most know that X is actually Tobey Maguire, and Cera similarly gets to coast on his unthreatening affability before revealing himself to be something of a sociopath (again, there’s some dramatic license here, but Maguire doesn’t come off well in Bloom’s book, either). Also noteworthy are Chris O’Dowd, Bryan d’Arcy James, and the great Bill Camp as players of varying skill and emotional fragility.
Aside from some explanatory graphics, Sorkin’s direction doesn’t call much attention to itself, which is probably for the best. As he’s likely the first to admit, he’s a much better writer. But he succeeds in keeping up the energy without losing total coherence (there are three credited editors, which hints at the mess this might have been), and in giving the fearsome Chastain room to run. It’s only a late reconciliation scene with Costner that rings false, as much for its implausibility (it’s staged in such a way I was wondering if she was imagining him) as for its lack of subtlety. Sorkin seems to have juiced that conflict early in the film so he’d have something to resolve later, and it’s Molly’s Game’s most frustratingly conventional element.
Ultimately, it’s a solid effort for Sorkin as a first-time director, and perhaps the first time his writing has been entirely upstaged by the performances. This way, he also gets credit for setting his cast up to win. Maybe that was the plan all along.