If you know me, you know that I love a good game of cards as much as I enjoy seeing screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s scripts brought to life by visionary directors. Finally, Sorkin is given the keys to his own vessel and comes through with an adaption of Molly Bloom’s memoir *deep breath* Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker. Immediately I was attracted to this movie for the subject matter (I sometimes get carried away with my own seemingly harmless gambling tendencies); Sorkin’s directorial debut; and the sensational Jessica Chastain starring as Molly Bloom. As the credits rolled, there was one thing certainly on my mind and that was, “Damn, I am overdue for a trip to Vegas.”
Molly’s Game (2017) is, as I said, the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is famous for writing incredible screenplays including (but not limited to) Steve Jobs (2015), Moneyball (2011), The Social Network (2010), The West Wing (1999-2006), and A Few Good Men (1992). Sorkin’s adaptation tells the true and tragic story of Bloom (Chastain), a world-class mogul skier driven by her overbearing father (Kevin Costner) who suffers a career-ending injury at a 2002 Olympic qualifying event. The film opens in the “present,” with Molly being arrested by the FBI for her involvement in illegal/high stakes poker rings around the country, and the plot goes back and forth between Bloom and her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) attempting to keep Bloom out of prison, and the events that lead Molly to her eventual arrest. From the very first scene, Aaron Sorkin’s writing is in full force with snappy quips and the perfect amount of subtle exposition, and Chastain owns it all with sheer effortlessness. If you are familiar with Sorkin’s writing, you may roll your eyes a bit as he “flexes” his wordplay, but as someone who sees his words as trippingly poetic, I enjoyed myself a little too much.
Jessica Chastain completely owns this movie. I cannot think of a single instance when I thought, “Eh, Jessica Chastain is just alright.” It simply never happens. She is one of the best working actresses in Hollywood and each role she lands is another chance for her to truly sink her teeth in. For her take on Molly Bloom, Chastain seems like she’s having the time of her life. I can imagine when actors receive a script with Aaron Sorkin’s name on it, they sigh with relief: Sorkin’s writing flows like a river out of talents’ mouths, effectively making these characters and their roles feel lived-in.
After Bloom’s wipeout at the Olympic qualifier, she puts off law school and moves to Los Angeles. With a lot of ambition and some luck, Molly finds herself assisting and eventually running high-stakes poker games in LA with frequent celebrity A-listers. Some of them like Molly, but all of them like the money being thrown around like candy. Of course, due to the cross-editing between ‘then’ and ‘now,’ we know that eventually Bloom will find herself the target of a federal investigation. In this movie, knowing the result certainly makes the journey intriguing. When Molly is high on life and the rush of these high-stakes games, it seems only inevitable that the next scene should be her downfall, but she simply gets higher and higher (due in part to her worsening addiction to mental stimulants). There’s an entrepreneurship to Molly Bloom, as you see her start from essentially nothing to build this ring of scumbags who throw out half a million dollars every night like it’s going out of style. It’s also great when the movie takes these business elements or the rules of poker and breaks down what exactly is going on in the room. Backed with strategic camera placement to make audiences feel as if they have a seat at the table themselves, the style truly immerses you in the world of this movie; almost like being in on a great inside joke. The movie (especially Sorkin’s writing) takes even the most complicated fundamentals of poker and breaks them down for you in the most digestible way. You know why someone is betting or bluffing and what their hand means for the other four players who haven’t folded yet.
The movie can sometimes jump from past to present a little too much and you may need to take a second to realize when you are, but it happens very few times. It’s not like Dunkirk (2017), in which you have no idea who’s where and when. This is something Sorkin has done before in his writing, such as in The Social Network, in which Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) chronicles the rise of Facebook while the movie cross-cuts between scenes of him and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) as well as his trial with the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer). Molly’s Game feels long in some instances, and while I wasn’t completely opposed to the runtime, it could have been more effective with time management. There are certainly some rushed moments, such as Bloom’s move from LA to New York, but the movie never feels like it comes to a screeching halt. Sometimes years go by in the edit so quickly that it feels like weeks, but thanks to Sorkin’s writing, you eventually get the gist of the timeline.
Having said this, the movie does effectively-enough tackle Molly’s rise from LA bars to Manhattan high-rises riddled with drugs and booze. The film also does not shy away from addressing the plentiful presence of celebrities who frequented Molly’s games in real life. Sorkin withholds real names and instead casts Michael Cera simply as “Player X” – who is in all likelihood Tobey Maguire from what research I’ve done on the real events of Molly Bloom. Apparently Spidey has a MEAN poker face. Cera is only in the movie for about a third, but he is absolutely stellar as a sleazebag who takes advantage of people’s money simply because he can.
Molly’s Game, to say the least, is a very entertaining movie. The poker is intriguing, the entrepreneurship of it makes you root for Molly. A lot of movies like this expose moguls and go-getters like Molly as complete scumbags; but Sorkin’s writing and Chastain’s acting make you see Molly as an inherently good person. Chastain shows us what a strong, driven female character looks like: a human being with a vast sea of emotions; not an essentialist female character masked in being “masculine” or “tough.” The movie does an exemplary job of showing how hard Molly works only to have man after man try to bring her down or hold her back. However, the movie could have taken a huge step to battle these gender dynamics but instead focuses the third act on Molly’s “daddy issues.” Kevin Costner does well with what he’s given, but Sorkin drops the ball here when it comes to Molly’s father. Sorkin gives Molly’s father a moment of emotional revelation, but the words ring false after bearing witness to how he treated Molly and their entire family in the past.
Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut may have benefited from a few more rounds in the writers’ room, but to call it a failure would be simply baffling. Sorkin is more than qualified for a director’s chair and he even creates a visual dynamic with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Sorkin’s ambition, alone, is enough to herald him as a full blown director – this is not an easy script to direct. There are time jumps, many locations, and voice-over narrating-a-plenty. But Sorkin’s visual style and overall eagerness to deliver a fun story make this worth your time.
While there are a few issues with the script and the movie could have been ten minutes shorter, Molly’s Game gives insight to a complex story led by Jessica Chastain, one of the best in the industry doing her best work yet. Sorkin is certainly not done in the director’s chair, and after his debut, I can confidently say I am excited for what his career has in store for him as a filmmaker.