Director: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Michael Cera
For those not previously acquainted with the life and (mis)deeds of Molly Bloom there are two main draws to this new film, which seems intent on slipping out unnoticed in the shadow of Star Wars. Firstly, the acting clout of Jessica Chastain, comfortably one of the greatest talents of her generation. Pick a year from this decade and you’ll find a phenomenal lead or supporting performance with her name on it. She either defines a film (Zero Dark Thirty, Miss Sloane) or acts as the shining white light in titles that otherwise cloud themselves in murk (Mama, Crimson Peak). There’s also Idris Elba, going toe-to-toe with her and delivering one of his fiercest performances outside of television… eventually.
Then there’s Aaron Sorkin, the renowned and revered screenwriter who became a household name following his stellar work on the first four seasons of The West Wing, who directs here for the first time. Sorkin’s screenwriting is defined by its antithetical approach. He tells, but rarely shows. This works fine on television (or, at least, it did in the early 00s when budgets and ambitions were smaller), but cinema is a medium that flourishes as a canvas for more pertinently visual storytelling and dynamic reach. Can the man show the same verbosity behind the camera?
His subject is a juicy if relatively safe one. A biopic, that of the aforementioned Molly Bloom, who went from disenfranchised freestyle skier to elite poker game hostess over a matter of months, courting respect and loyalty from some of the richest men in America and guarding their secrets, only to find herself indicted and facing jail time. Chastain is Sorkin’s leading lady; Elba plays her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey.
Safety is Sorkin’s watchword here, as the story itself allows him to play within comfortable parameters. It’s mainly all talk in rooms, around tables or over desks. His dense screenplay is a frightfully over thought tome; employing a multiple flashback framework and reams and reams of narration, especially in the first half hour, during which Chastain isn’t allowed a second to draw breath. The motormouth intensity that characterises much of Sorkin’s work is let loose. As both writer and director he has nobody telling him ‘no’. Has he ever? Regardless, he really runs with it here. Much like the work of Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson, it appears impressive if idiosyncratic on first approach, but there’s a by-product; all characters talk with the same voice; his. When the varnish fades, the remainder feels downright egotistical.
Sorkin offers no clear directorial voice with this debut, no sense of ownership or ambition, save for some rather crude and overly literal tics (script mentions big companies, so cut to flash montage of big company logos etc.). These tics feel like an attempt to breach the faux-messy style of, say, Adam McKay’s equally dense but more-savvy The Big Short, but Sorkin doesn’t quite get the material to soar. It winds up just messy. Perhaps sensing this, he is content to allow the majority of Molly’s Game to play out like 140 minutes of TV let loose in the cinema.
As he pours paragraphs into his characters’ mouths, the film expands (you clocked that running time, right?). So while the first hour feels pacey and moderately engaging, the momentum sags and eventually disappears as the film ups stakes from LA to New York in the past, while the present is all-but-capsized by the bludgeoning sentimentality of Kevin Costner’s thudding turn as Molly’s estranged father. It’s a film of fits and starts; clumsy opening, some smooth sailing, and then a whole mass of seemingly conflicted intentions.
Yet, park bench scene aside, Molly’s Game isn’t overtly bad, just unruly. Chastain puts in the work, though she’s continually hamstrung by Sorkin’s disembodied voice. Frustratingly, he flaunts a level of complexity in Molly which he then snappily withdraws (see aforementioned bench scene). Nevertheless, Bloom is drawn here as a woman every bit as intelligent as the men who surrounded her (and, frequently, more so), while the film lionises her integrity and makes a strong case for it in the process. Said strong case is vocalised by Elba’s Jaffey in a scene which walks a knife-edge between powerhouse performance and total self-parody.
In the end it all fizzles. Molly’s Game is based on Bloom’s own book, and one gets the feeling that there’s a somewhat lapsed sense of objectivity to the final film. Aside from the wonkiness of its construction, there’s a (that word again) frustrating sense that there’s a better movie to be made of this material, one less concerned with auditory bombast and more focused on character and nuance. Sorkin the writer is as arrogant and audacious as ever. Sorkin the director isn’t really anywhere to be seen.