[This is a re-post of my Molly’s Game review from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie is now playing nationwide.]
Right up front let me level with you: I’m a big Aaron Sorkin fan. He’s one of my favorite writers of all time, The West Wing is my favorite TV show of all time, and The Social Network is one of my favorite movies of all time. So if anyone’s biased towards Sorkin’s next project, that’s me (also me: guy who liked The Newsroom). That being said, much as I admire Sorkin’s singular style, I’ll admit I was a bit hesitant about Sorkin making his directorial debut. He’s been candid about the fact that he writes stories about people talking in rooms, and it’s always been up to folks like David Fincher or Danny Boyle or Bennett Miller to elevate that material visually. Thankfully, Molly’s Game—a true story drama about a driven young woman who ran one of the most exclusive high-stakes poker games in the world—makes for a successful debut feature from “Director Aaron Sorkin,” while also boasting some phenomenal performances and, unsurprisingly, a firecracker of a script.
This is a film about Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic-class skier whose injury forced her to find another career path. Through a mix of luck and ambition, she finds herself running a high-stakes poker game in Los Angeles frequented by celebrity A-listers, where she quickly learns the ropes and uses her tremendous intellect to, essentially, build her own wildly successful business from the ground up. Years later she would find herself the target of an FBI investigation and under federal prosecution with her entire bank account wiped out and potentially years behind bars ahead of her.
Molly’s Game chronicles Molly’s story from beginning to end, albeit not exactly in sequential order. Somewhat similar to how Sorkin brilliantly tackled The Social Network, this film features a fractured narrative that moves back and forth, framed with a present day-set story in which Molly is talking out her case with a do-good, no-nonsense lawyer named Charlie Jaffey (who works at a fictional, West Wing Easter Egg of a law firm called “Gage Whitney”—I see you Sorkin!) brought to life in a stunning turn by Idris Elba. Chastain and Elba’s rapport in these scenes is positively electric, and it should come as no surprise that the best parts of the film usually happen whenever these two are on screen together. It’s a cliché but true—it really is like watching two world class athletes go head to head, as two of the best actors of their generation give it all they’ve got, armed with a rapid-fire Aaron Sorkin screenplay as their ammo.
The movie tackles Molly’s rise and fall in the poker world, from her humble beginnings in the back of an L.A. bar to a Manhattan high rise filled with booze and drugs. And yes, the film does nod to the famous faces that we know frequented Molly’s games in real life. Although Sorkin doesn’t name names, Michael Cera plays a famous actor billed simply as “Player X”, who no doubt is either straight up Tobey Maguire or some amalgam of Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and/or Ben Affleck. And he’s great! Charming and wonderfully devilish, Cera is an absolute delight despite only appearing in about a third of the movie.
But the real star is Chastain, and she is dynamite. She imbues the character with obvious strength, but you can see the nagging need to succeed just behind her eyes, like she has something to prove. Chastain is one of our greatest living actresses, and she plays the hell out of a character that goes from naïve but driven assistant to assured (yet overstretched) CEO over the course of two and a half hours. Through it all, Chastain shows us what a “strong female character” looks like—a human being containing a multitude of emotions, not simply a female character who’s masculine or “tough.”
But it’s within Molly’s empire that the film starts to have some issues. Clearly she’s a woman working in a man’s world, and no matter how high she climbs or how hard she works, there’s always a man ready to put her in her place and take it all away. Sorkin digs into this a bit, but opts to focus more on “Daddy Issues” in the third act to disappointing results instead of confronting the gender dynamics. Kevin Costner gives a solid turn as Bloom’s overbearing father, but Sorkin’s decision to put some of the emotional revelations in his character’s mouth rings false, and quite frankly is a little baffling.
Indeed, one imagines in another director’s hands, Molly’s Game may have been elevated from a solid double/triple to a home run, and issues like these would have been finessed. But that’s definitely not to say the Oscar-winning screenwriter’s first directorial effort is a failure—far from it. Sorkin more than shows he’s capable at crafting a film from every angle, and I was pleasantly surprised to see some real visual dynamism in his work with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Far from the Madding Crowd). This is absolutely no softball script for a first-time director—it’s a complex story with lots of different locations, a non-linear narrative, and plenty of voiceover narration. But Sorkin approaches his script confidently and, thankfully, with ambition, juggling complex exposition with a swell (and exciting) visual style that makes the viewing experience a highly entertaining and positively delightful watch. This movie is very fun at times, and Sorkin knows how to drive this thing with gusto.
So while there are certainly a few issues here and there with the script, and the movie could stand to lose 10 or 20 minutes, Molly’s Game offers a compelling chronicle of a complex story spearheaded by a terrific actress doing phenomenal work. And it’s an absolute blast to boot. It is, to my own surprise, a promising directorial debut from Sorkin that makes me eager to see him grow as a filmmaker. To borrow a line from his most iconic TV series, “What’s next?”