By Jim Slotek
From The West Wing to Steve Jobs, though other people have directed his scripts, we know an “Aaron Sorkin joint” when we see and hear one. People walking and talking really fast? Yep. Sorkin’s characters have a lot to say and places to go while saying it.
Oddly, Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game dumps one of those two signatures. Hint: it isn’t the fast-talking.
It’s set in the world of high-stakes poker, and based on the real-life story of Olympic-class skier-turned-Poker-Princess Molly Bloom. Molly’s Game is, by definition, a movie where people are mostly stuck to their seats – both at million-dollar gaming tables and in the courtroom, where Molly ends up after a Russian Mob connection to her games blows up.
The movie is often compared to The Big Short in that it tells a story that relies on making a complex subject easy to digest. The difference between the two is that, having seen it twice, I still feel I know less about big-league poker than I did before I watched the movie. The first time, during the Toronto International Film Festival, I simply felt beaten up by all the verbiage.
The second time, I came to appreciate the job Jessica Chastain does as the self-made queen of illicit high-stakes gaming. It’s double duty, really, since she has to both play the character, and keep a running narration going about the ins and outs of poker (flops, action, nuts, etc.), at the pace of an auctioneer.
The story is actually fascinating, a high-achieving athlete with (surprise!) a domineering father (Kevin Costner) has to channel her ambition after a career-ending injury. The progression: from hostess to executive assistant to a sleazy low-in-the-foodchain Hollywood producer (Jeremy Strong) who introduces her to “his” game full of movie stars and money players.
Not one to offer mercy to scumbags (although she is fatally sympathetic to lovable losers, the most lovable played by Chris O'Dowd), Molly eventually pulls the play that transfers de facto ownership of the game to her. It also pulls her into partnership with a vicious movie star/poker fanatic named “Mr. X” (improbably, but oddly amusingly played by Michael Cera).
This partnership eventually falls off the rails. And it’s in Molly’s nature that her competitiveness simply inspires her to up the stakes, moving from L.A. to New York, where the money is even bigger (and the FBI’s radar is even more sensitive).
Sorkin has a lot of story to tell. Some of it is compelling (the array of players at the table indeed money guys, the type of tragic, hubristic thrill-junkies who rode The Big Short’s subprime crisis). Other subplots are extraneous or worse. Idris Elba has little dramatic traction as a top-ranked lawyer who takes Molly’s case out of sympathy.
And the amateur psychiatry involved in the relationship between Molly and her dad is eventually used in a “this explains everything” way that seems preposterous – no how many words you use to explain it.
What shines through in Molly’s Game, however, is the pure dignity of the woman Chastain plays while overseeing a dirty game. Chastain’s Molly stands up defiantly and believably to slimy producers, movie stars, the brutality of the Mob and eventually, the vindictiveness of the U.S. government. Whether the real character displayed this kind of old-school movie backbone or not, her onscreen version is a real movie heroine, solidly portrayed by a consummate pro.
Molly's Game. Directed and written by Aaron Sorkin. Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner. Opens wide Christmas Day.