Molly’s Game: Middle Position, by David Bax
In the prologue of Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game, Molly herself (Jessica Chastain) narrates her backstory. It’s filled with information about her impressive past, from her place in the world ranking of competitive skiers to her above average LSAT score. Sorkin has a history of spotlighting characters, both real and fictional, whose intellect and worth can be measured according to these traditional scales and tests, probably because people like Sorkin have always done well by them. Performing capably according to supposedly unbiased standards is a good way to camouflage privilege. But the world is changing and, while Molly’s Game may have been a good movie according to whatever rubric we used in Sorkin’s 90s heyday and may even be superficially entertaining in bursts now, it’s simply too innocuous and too misguided to pass muster today.
Molly’s Game, based on the memoir of the same name by Molly Bloom, is an account of Bloom’s experience running exclusive, illegal, high-stakes poker games in Los Angeles and New York and her subsequent battle to stay out of jail with the help of a lawyer played by Idris Elba. Though names have been changed (the Viper Room becomes the “Cobra Lounge”; a character widely speculated to be based on Tobey Maguire is known only as “Player X”), this Wolf of Wall Street with a heart of gold narrative of a lavish rise and a minor fall manages some timely references to sexual harassment by powerful men before eventually succumbing to its formulaic heart. In the end, the characters’ edges get sanded down and we all get to nod along with the cheesy score.
It will come as no surprise that Chastain and Elba turn in solid performances; that’s what they always do (even if Elba occasionally has troubling juggling both an American accent and a half page of dialogue at a time). But the two leads, along with the always reliable Kevin Costner as Bloom’s father, are too hemmed in by Sorkin’s over-writing. That leaves the supporting players room to repeatedly outshine the stars. Michael Cera, as Player X, is particularly effective in juxtaposing his soft eyes and smile with X’s cruel sociopathy. Other highlights include Bill Camp as a professional poker player unimpressed by the famous folks at the table and Brian d’Arcy James as a buffoonish tyro happy to lose his money to the stars.
Sorkin’s such a celebrated screenwriter that actors often seem eager to work with him but it’s telling that the best work comes from those with the fewest lines. Maybe Sorkin’s just bought his own hype, though, because it turns out he directs just like he writes. His words fit together like puzzle pieces, precut and pre-ordained by a perfectly calibrated machine. His shots and edits work the same way, framing and following the dialogue in a way that prohibits the camera from locating anything that’s not on the page (or, presumably, the storyboard). It’s engaging, with its staccato rhythm, but it’s never graceful.
For that, Sorkin would need subtlety, something with which he’s never been comfortable. Molly’s Game is no improvement. Costner, for example, tries his best to draw out the difficulties of being a proud father who was never a great dad but, unfortunately, he mostly exists to facilitate a literal therapy session in the third act that delineates all of Bloom’s key character themes. This recurrent feeling of almost getting somewhere and then being yanked back by a fist of ham is the movie’s undoing. Just as we’re tapping into Chastain’s portrayal of a winner trapped in the body of a loser—or, more accurately, a human being trapped in the body of an overachiever—we get pummeled with scenes of Bloom’s rock bottom, an anti-drug PSA of a sequence that would have been corny twenty years ago. We’ve moved on from that sort of thing. Sorkin just hasn’t kept up.