Aaron Sorkin is one of the most acclaimed writers working today between his work on acclaimed shows like The West Wing or in acclaimed films like The Social Network. Sorkin specializes in fast-paced worlds dominated by men, men who walk fast, talk fast, and stop in their tracks to lecture women on whatever impassioned topic has been brought up. Now Sorkin steps behind the camera for his feature film directorial debut with Molly’s Game, the film adaptation of the book from poker moll Molly Bloom. Once running high stakes games in hotels in Los Angeles and New York, Bloom found herself in the tabloids and federal court for poker games and the famous or infamous faces that routinely placed bets in her presence. There’s no doubt that Molly’s Game is the work of Aaron Sorkin with its blistering dialogue. However, Sorkin’s skills as a director don’t match his skills as a writer, leaving Molly’s Game as a messy but enjoyable tale of a woman making waves in a man’s world.
Before getting into all the sordid details of how Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) wound up in front of a judge, Molly’s Game gives us the rundown of Molly’s life before poker. Driven by her psychologist father (Kevin Costner), as well as an inferiority complex sparked by her overachieving brothers, Molly started out as a nationally ranked skier, coming back to the slopes after a devastating injury required massive surgery to fix her spine. The doctors said she’d never ski again and she showed them by making it to the Olympic qualifiers. However, a little twig on the slope caused her to crash and permanently derailed her skiing aspirations.
Years later, Molly Bloom is sleeping in her Los Angeles home when federal authorities take her into custody. The high stakes poker games that she’s been putting together for years have implicated her in a massive federal probe that includes money laundering for members of the Russian mob. Her finances seized and little recourse, Molly travels to New York for her arraignment and enlists the legal counsel of attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who is regarded for his ethical practice.
Just how Molly became the poker queen is a long, winding story as Sorkin’s film weaves between the past and present in a Scorsese-esque fashion in hopes of creating the most dramatic impact. Molly moves to Los Angeles where she works as a cocktail waitress before becoming the assistant for Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), a crude businessman struggling to stay afloat but his struggles don’t diminish his cruelty. He runs a weekly high stakes poker game out of the back of a nightclub, wealthy celebrities and businessmen meet in secret to play cards. Molly is introduced to this world when she’s forced to be the host and quickly takes to it. When Dean tries to strong arm her and limit her pay, Molly splits off and creates her own high stakes game out of a hotel. Player X (Michael Cera), as he’s called, is a wealthy actor who helps Molly keep her games populated with wealthy players. When there’s a falling out between Molly and Player X, she moves her operation to New York City where she’s tending to even more wealthy elites, some of whom have dark connections.
Sorkin’s screenplay is dominated by voiceover. There’s hardly a scene where details aren’t provided in depth by Chastain’s Bloom explaining the minutiae. Sometimes this adds a lot of flavor to the film, such as the moments where the professional and personal elements of the players is fleshed out. Other times it grow tiresome as Sorkin continues to tell and not show, a writer unsure of how to best utilize a visual medium. Molly’s Game is never boring even when it does run into some rough patches, especially the last 20 or so minutes where all sorts of revelations seem to just come out left field. Admirers of Aaron Sorkin’s snappy dialogue will revel in the writer-turned-director’s trademarked witticisms being exchanged at a high rate of speed.
Jessica Chastain really brings the fire in her portrayal of Molly Bloom. The gifted actress commands the screen. At first, her character is much more meek and unassuming before slowly evolving into a woman who wields power over powerful men. Chastain is able to reel off Sorkin’s dialogue without missing a beat, and between the on screen performance and the narration Chastain is as omnipresent as Sorkin, though I don’t know who else could possibly play this role. The performance delivered here is so great because we’re witness to Chastain’s Bloom weaving in and out of various gender and power dynamics only to consistently emerge unscathed and stronger than she was before.
While I’m not sure that Molly’s Game does the best job on selling Aaron Sorkin as a director, it does feature him playing to his strengths in his writing and Jessica Chastain brings that script to life. Sometimes it seems as Molly’s Game is a bit unfocused as it bounces between storylines and subplots seemingly without much rhyme or reason, but it does slowly begin to coalesce before some of the more ludicrous moments in the film’s final act. Despite its issues, Molly’s Game is still an engaging, ambitious work of cinema that places Jessica Chastain front and center in a nuanced performance of a woman fighting tooth and nail to carve out her own spot in a man’s subculture and all the ugliness that comes to the surface because of it.