Aaron Sorkin didn’t set out to direct Molly’s Game. He’d been recruited by the real-life Molly Bloom, a failed Olympic skier turned high stakes gambling boss, to adapt her memoir for the screen. Who better to write a screenplay about one woman’s lonely pursuit of power and the lawsuit that brought her down than the guy who wrote The Social Network? Or so she seemed to think. Sorkin clearly agreed, but it wasn’t until he took his script to producers, chiefly Amy Pascal, that he was talked into making this his directorial debut. “Aaron,” they all said, “You have to direct this.”
No, he didn’t. He really, really didn’t.
Even after his decades of writing for the stage, TV, and film, Molly’s Game proves Sorkin wasn’t ready to step behind the camera. It’s one thing to be the person crafting the story and the filling the character’s mouths with a steady stream of rapid-paced, hyper-literate dialogue, the type that will automatically click with some audiences and alienate others. It’s an entirely different thing to be the one deciding how to block and edit the action, come to a well-defined visual style, and motivate the actors to spew out heightened dialogue in such a way that they still manage to seem like actual human beings instead of mere acting robots, like the Sorkintron 5000 verbally sparring with Sorkinbot 350 (which is what Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba far too often feel like here).
That’s a job previously and quite successfully pulled off by the likes of David Fincher (Social Network), Rob Reiner (American President), Mike Nichols (Charlie Wilson’s War) and Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs). Sorkin seems to have learned the most from Fincher, treating the entirety of Molly’s Game as if it was just one long version of Social Network’s early coding montage. The result is a film that has more voiceover than actual dialogue and seems to be an endless procession of scenes in which Chastain’s Molly stands in the background of poker games and tells us via voiceover what’s happening. When the camera suddenly zooms in on one of the poker games and throws some graphics at us to spell out the various directions the game might go we’re stunned to see Sorkin actually doing something cinematic. It’s a fleeting feeling, though.
Let’s back up.
After flaming out on the Olympic circuit (presented here in one of the better openings to any Sorkin movie ever), the real Molly Bloom fell into working for an asshole real estate developer in LA. He ordered her into overseeing a high stakes poker game he hosted at the Viper Club (renamed Cobra Lounge in the movie) and attended by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire, Matt Damon, and Macaulay Culkin (none of whom are named in the movie, instead personified by Michael Cera playing an unnamed “green screen actor” or “player x”). When Bloom proved to be too good at her job, the developer tried to squeeze her for money. So, she set up her own game and through sheer wits and ingenuity soon had an underground poker empire of her own, one lucrative enough to up her take-home into the millions.
In 2013, two years after she’d shut down her operation, Bloom was arrested along with 33 others as part of nationwide crackdown on money laundering and illegal gambling. Her assets seized, she wrote a memoir a year later in exchange for a sizable advance and promise of steady book sales but could have made even more if she’d agreed to name more names in her book. Because her poker games eventually attracted members of the Russian mob, she was at the center of the DOJ’s investigation, and they wanted to put her in prison for 10 years. Her lawyer, whom she couldn’t even afford, argued otherwise.
Molly’s Game uses the lawsuit as the framing device to key up the flashbacks and gives her a fictional lawyer played by Elba to serve as the audience surrogate who goes from judging and minimizing Molly to celebrating and respecting her. This framing device, so familiar to Social Network fans, actually feels unnecessary here and seems to get in the way of Sorkin’s larger preference to simply have Molly tell us her life story from a place of, “Judge me now, but love me by the end.”
It’s a good story, particularly in today’s environment. Here’s a woman who had been bullied by a demanding father (Kevin Costner), struggled in the shadows of her more accomplished brothers (one a professional athlete, the other a genius surgeon), was verbally abused by an entitled boss, and treated like mere window dressing by some of the most famous men in the world whose personal enjoyment of only getting to look at and not touch her eventually wore off. Yet she managed to thrive to the point that her success repeatedly put her at odds with those men in power who sought to put her back in her place.
Well, fuck ’em because the Molly Blooms of the world won’t back down, and good on Sorkin for bringing this story to the screen. We’ve seen countless male-driven stories about the rise and fall of criminal empires. Tom Cruise just starred in one last year (American Made). Here’s a female-driven alternative. Plus, like I, Tonya, here’s a clear attempt by the key players to reframe the popular narrative about a woman who was unfairly judged by the media.
That Molly’s Game works as well as it does is mostly attributable to the inherent appeal of that story, the strength of its message, and the sporadic ability of Sorkin and his actors to deliver something truly memorable (at times, Chastain is riveting; at other times, miscast). Where it falters, though, is Sorkin, a man who has literally taught courses on screenwriting, coming off as someone who just now realized how truly difficult it is to actually direct an Aaron Sorkin script.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Molly’s Game is Sorkin completely unfiltered, right down to scenes where preachy men simply spell everything out for us, and that’s a bad thing. But its story, message, and occasionally compelling performances make it an enjoyable disappointment.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- SPOILER For a movie so endearingly pitched as a female empowerment story, is it odd that the two most crucial scenes involve men, first Idris Elba, then Kevin Costner, passionately telling Molly just how great she is? Or that Molly’s mother is a practical non-character even though she’s the one who put up her own house to help pay her daughter’s legal fees?
- Since Molly always wore new dresses to each game and wanted to look sexy, but not trashy, Jessica Chastain’s cleavage is an ever-present co-star in this movie. Check out Vulture’s talk with costume designer Susan Lyall for how they pulled it off and where exactly they decided to draw the line.
CRITICAL CONSENSUS RIGHT NOW
What about you? Have you seen Molly’s Game? Let me know in the comments.