For Molly’s Game, his directorial debut, Aaron Sorkin has written himself a script of his hits. It’s safe material I guess, stuff that he knows works, stuff that he’s confident he’ll be able to execute. When you’ve written for Mike Nichols, David Fincher, Bennett Miller and Danny Boyle over the past ten years you’ve adequate access to the playbook. He even simplifies it for himself, the tricks that he’s played in the past are toned down here, the story played straight, the symbolism is easy to discern.
It’s half a high strung interpersonal drama, and half a procedural guide on how to run semi-legal high stakes poker games for America’s rich and famous. Also how to balance that life with being a mostly conscientious responsible person. There’s something that Sorkin realised as a writer a while ago that very few seem to follow him on; watching people who are very good at their jobs is an inherently fascinating thing.
Underneath all of his spark that’s mostly what he goes for, it’s why all of his film works are adaptations. When he doesn’t have few seasons of TV to capture an environment he just narrows his focus down to the extraordinary competence of ordinary humans. Molly Bloom, as portrayed by Jessica Chastain is a former competitive freestyle skier who, having taken up PA job for some asshole, finds herself in the position of co-ordinating his weekly poker game. She sees something profit in a field she knows she’d be able to dominate.
At the same time, twelve years later and two years out of the game, she is arraigned due to her connections with the members of New York’s organised crime elite who visited her poker ring. Idris Elba is her hapless lawyer, trying his best to defend someone too proud to act in their own self interest. We spend very little time on the accusations, Elba basically appearing to interrogate the motives and beliefs of a character to whom in the past would not have been able to brook rejection.
Most of our time is spent in flashback, an omnipresent voiceover explaining who the men in the expensive suits sitting around the opulent tables are. What they bring to the game, and what they get out of it. They’re transient figures mainly, who slide in riding high and unceremoniously disappear when their luck changes. I’m not gonna spoil anything here, because the way Sorkin paints the rise and fall of these dramatis personae is a huge part of the film’s giddy charm. Chastain lurking in the background as her voice spits those lines he writes, tightly woven, infuriatingly elegant.
The present day stuff is less compelling, but that’s why you hire Idris Elba. The mostly thankless work of interrupting the fun and picking apart the shinier details of this rags to riches narrative comes down to him. For the most part the script manages to avoid the unfortunate creeping misogyny of some of his previous work, buuuuut the appearance of Kevin Costner as Molly’s father leads to a resolution that falls into place all easy and unearned.
It’s easy to see Sorkin’s directorial approach, especially in his use of montage, as a direct evolution of his writing style. All it does is amplify the strengths and the weaknesses of the form. The man ain’t super into darkness or hopelessness, when the story takes a grim turn late on, when it starts to dwell on compromise and consequence, we ain’t made to feel the failure. Here the voiceover becomes a distraction, instead of inviting us into this character’s universe it now serves to distance us from it.
Its slickness in these moments is distracting, we know Sorkin can create asshole antiheroes, it’s been his thing forever. So why does he stop now, why does this life get whitewashed? It makes for a nervous feeling film, eager to please. You don’t notice the desperation until the motive changes, then it’s hard not to feel short changed. We’re only given a part of a person here, and the film addresses that too, but it ain’t sufficient.
It can be so fun when it wants to be. Jessica Chastain continues to be one of the absolute best, y’all can just tell how much she’s into doing this shit. The last like two years of her career has been evidence of her skill. But both she and Sorkin can be braver than this, they’ve both been putting out more confrontational, revelatory work both recently and throughout their careers. They’re a good match for each other, I hope they work together again, just cut it with the weak shit.
Next time just fucking bring it.
Molly’s Game is currently screening in UK cinemas.