Even if we didn’t know who made the film, it becomes obvious that we’re watching the execution of yet another fast-paced, witty, self-satisfied Aaron Sorkin script within the first ten minutes of Molly’s Game, with all of the positive and negative connotations that come along with that sentence. The prologue packs enough exposition via wisecracking voice-over delivered at a breakneck pace to fill an entire feature. The film’s title card has barely left our short-term visual memory and we already know all there is to know about the politics of Olympic skiing and how to run underground high stakes poker games. Over the years, Sorkin has been interested in studying the quintessential driven, passionate, cool-hearted, no-nonsense American business entrepreneur, enough to eventually master his own trademark of the impressive but problematic rags-to-riches capitalist mogul archetype.
Take the real-life story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), who, after failing as an Olympic skier, made a fortune by running elite underground poker games attended by movie stars, rich athletes, rock stars and various other super rich douchebags, only to end up in a legal battle with the feds to retain some of her fortune and clear her name. This is catnip for Sorkin, enough to not only adapt Bloom’s memoir (also titled Molly’s Game) into a screenplay, but to try his hand at directing his first feature film, as well. The result of this experiment is a technically competent but messy and awkwardly paced mish-mash of The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs.
After Molly’s crash course into the intricate details of skiing and poker, Molly’s Game settles into its convenient but satisfactory framing device, where Molly hires expensive lawyer Charlie (Idris Elba) to defend her against illegal gambling charges that can land her in prison for a long time. She already lost her fortune when she was caught two years prior, and now the government is after her freedom. She can make a lot of money through a book deal and perhaps keep herself from becoming an especially smug addition to Orange is the New Black: Real Life Edition by divulging the real identities of the famous people who played at her table. But her word and her credibility are all that she’s got left in this world, so releasing those names is out of the question. Therein lies the only major conflict in the film, one that Sorkin unwisely banks on making us keep our interest in Molly’s story for almost the same length as The Shawshank Redemption.
Molly’s insistence on reserving her honor is admirable, but when it’s the only characteristic that complexity or gives us insight into her character, the audience ends up being kept at an emotional distance to the story. The flashback-heavy structure chronicles Molly’s rise in the poker world while she tells her tale to Charlie as preparation for her case. The flashback sections copy the manic and detail-heavy pacing of Wolf of Wall Street, with the snarky humor but without the angry satire that made Scorsese’s film so memorable. In an attempt to empower his protagonist as a self-made female success story in a world dominated by predatory alpha males, Sorkin portrays Molly as a one-note android whose borderline superhuman focus, intellect and stamina turns her into a rather dull character. This in turn makes the shiny close-up tracking shots of high-end locations, food and booze that Molly sensuously describes via voice-over look like glamor porn instead of an intended satire of American excess.
Sorkin is not really interested in Molly’s internal conflict, how her personal life is affected by her newfound career, and how she can manage to hold onto such a hectic lifestyle for years without hitting the self-destruct button. There’s a quick reference to how she got addicted to drugs as a way to cope with her insane schedule, but it’s introduced when we’re almost nearing the third act, without any foreshadowing or development, and is pretty much forgotten right away. What Sorkin’s really into are the ins and outs of the poker world. He takes his time loading up overlong expositional sequences about the vast minutiae of the game and tangential short stories about characters whose lives were ruined because of it.
Yet with all of that exposition, Molly’s Game is still not an inclusive experience for members of the audience who are not well versed in high stakes poker. There are many moments of supposedly chilling tension building on the outcome of a game, or the details of various behind-the-scenes back stabbings that will more than likely go over their heads. I actually used to play poker in college, and I know next to nothing about baseball statistics. So how come it was easy to follow the narrative and the core conflict of Moneyball, co-written by Sorkin, while getting lost in the repetitive and episodic nature of Molly’s Game? I think the answer lies in creating three-dimensional characters with relatable conflict. I might not have understood the details of Billy Beane’s work, but I was always aware of what was at stake for him. When it comes to Molly, apart from her insistence on not divulging her clients’ identities, there isn’t much else to hold onto. Whatever innate humanity we derive out of this character comes out of Chastain’s versatile performance, where she effortlessly switches between ice cool and red passion.
Cutting back-and-forth between the present day trial and the flashbacks to the wild and crazy times, Sorkin settles into a nice balance in pacing, where we get a respite from the manic Scorsese crime drama editing of the poker days with the calmer and more meticulously patient style of the court drama. Since the film lacks character complexity that would have justified its epic runtime, it’s already an overlong experience that’s not helped by the inclusion of a superfluous sub-plot revolving around Molly’s strained relationship with her perfectionist father (Kevin Costner). This is obviously meant to give us some more personal insight into what makes Molly tick, but apart from providing a clear reason as to why she hates her father, these scenes are fairly unnecessary. Not only that, but a ridiculous coincidence during the third act, which made me do a double take to make sure I wasn’t watching a dream sequence, really screws up the film’s landing, the way Molly’s skis did during the opening scene.
All in all, Molly’s Game is your veritable mixed bag, an adaptation that falls fairly flat, and one can’t help suspecting the film would have fared much better with a hundred-minute runtime. Nonetheless, Sorkin’s visual flair, especially during the poker scenes, show his knack for directing, and the performances are solid all around, especially when it comes to an uncharacteristically devilish Michael Cera. If there’s a clear savior for this material, it’s Chastain’s focused performance. Idris Elba brings his usual effortless charisma to the table, but he might have been an awkward choice to deliver Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire banter. For die-hard Sorkin fans and poker aficionados, Molly’s Game will probably provide a satisfying two-and-a-half hours. For everyone else, there’s always The Social Network and Moneyball.
Aaron Sorkin, based on Molly Bloom’s book
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chros O’Dowd, Graham Greene
Release Date: January 5, 2018
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.