Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Bill Camp, Brian d’Arcy James, Chris O’Dowd, Graham Greene, Idris Elba, Jeremy Strong,Jessica Chastain, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera
Released: January 1st, 2018
Molly’s Game begins with a prologue of sorts that efficiently and eloquently establishes who this woman is, where she comes from, what type of person her nurturing has led her to be, and how she is unable to approach anything without learning every aspect of it and giving it her full attention. Molly’s Game begins as one would expect any Aaron Sorkin-penned script to: with a lot of big words, fast sentences, and overall impressive language that paint a picture of an even more impressive specimen. That’s what Molly Bloom, as played by the beautiful Jessica Chastain, is here: a specimen. Bloom is an individual who might serve as the best kind of example of our species as she was raised on the assembly line of a father who manufactures exceptionally smart and athletically trained children; Molly being abruptly spit out into the real world when an injury sets her Olympic career back. That said, she has issues of her own and while most certainly stem from that overbearing and overly critical nurturing she received from her father (Kevin Costner) some can still be attributed to the nature of Bloom and who she grows to be as an individual outside of her father’s control. This is all to say that Molly’s Game, as it begins and as it continues to show us the layers and intelligence of its complex protagonist throughout, is a fascinating character study and peek behind the curtain into a world many knew existed, but few had any idea the details of or of how it operated. It’s only a shame Sorkin’s latest on which he makes his directorial debut is lacking in any type of visual flair that might match the wit and research that has clearly gone into the dialogue being spouted. It’s not that Molly’s Game doesn’t look acceptable or even like a big Hollywood production should-it does, but the problem is that it looks so much like a standard Hollywood production it takes away from the exceptionalism of the story being told. This is a story as slick and as insider-y as one could imagine and thus the aesthetic and editing should match in a way that emphasizes as much. Instead, while having no doubt watched countless innovative filmmakers do their thing over the years Sorkin resorts to playing his debut as a series of safe choices that lend no style to a story that is all style. While this doesn’t derail the film overall, it certainly doesn’t enhance the rich material, character work, and lead performance Chastain has fully lent herself to.
Like I said in the opening paragraph, Molly’s Game begins with this establishing monologue of sorts that tells us who she is and immediately sets us into the mentality of our narrator. After being taken through this mindset of a character who talks like a Sorkin character, but from her story and upbringing we come to see why Sorkin was so interested in telling this particular story, and thus come to feel that the real Bloom’s mentality and penchant for no-nonsense chatter might fall somewhat in line with that of Chastain’s representation. Granted, I haven’t watched the real Bloom on any YouTube videos and have only seen a picture of her after looking up details about her book (a book used heavily in discussions that take place in the movie), but I imagine Chastain attempted to mimic speech patterns, inflections, and vocal mannerisms best she could as she certainly seems to have tried to look as much the part as possible. Chastain plays the woman as this anti-wife, an attractive woman who encourages the men to gamble, who has models serving them drinks, and thus inherently makes them flock to her. This is a good thing though, for to understand how Bloom became who she became there needs to be at least an attempt at an accurate portrayal of the physical aspects of the character as much as there is an intellectual one. From this opening monologue through to our main character breaking free of her father’s clutches and moving to Los Angeles to live on her own for the first time Sorkin and his editor move at a rapid fire pace in order to soak the audience in this environment and the makeup and disposition of this character. From here, the narrative Molly’s Game is actually tackling begins to take shape. Sorkin begins by showing us the arrest of Bloom two years after having run her last poker game as part of a bigger, more intensive take down of several suspected Russian mob bosses for which Bloom seems to have no idea of why she is included on such a roster. By opening with this arrest and working backward, Sorkin is able to frame the story of how Bloom came to be a twenty-six-year-old cocktail waitress who then ended up running a private weekly poker game for some of Hollywood’s highest rollers in a way that isn’t simply a straightforward retelling, but more a conflict of Bloom’s truth against the media, the tabloids, and her lawyer’s instinct. This reference point of Bloom’s lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), allows for the story and Sorkin’s script to check itself intermittently when it seems what we’re seeing on screen is so outlandish and so unbelievable that the audience is assured this did happen in the fashion Bloom is describing and, despite the film being based on a true story, that Molly’s Game‘s entire premise is undoubtedly stranger than fiction.
“Waiting for the call I knew was coming.” is a line that is repeated several times throughout the film by Bloom herself. This line demonstrates Bloom’s ability to be a few steps ahead of those she’s become entangled with. It tells the audience she can read people, but most of all it gives the story this sense of stakes not automatically present for those of us that don’t fully understand the dynamic of poker. “Poker is a game of skill, not of chance,” Bloom also says at one point in the film and so there is this preciseness that is constantly suggested whether it be in the characters intuition, the largest factor in the whole of the content, or the tone of the writing. At the same time, Sorkin outlines the events of Bloom’s tumultuous journey while using these events to provoke a study of the type of character Bloom is. This is screenwriting 101, but one would be remiss not to mention how effortlessly Sorkin pulls off as much here as his screenplay is viciously entertaining in that it chronicles these unbelievable events while, without the audience suspecting it, genuinely conveys the “why” of Bloom’s arc. Why does Bloom do this? Why does she become so involved despite all the promise her previous life held? To run potentially illegal poker games and make untold amounts of money, but still risk all that she worked her entire life to build? This is the question that comes to be at the forefront of our minds as Sorkin weaves back and forth between Bloom and Jaffey hashing out her case and the recollection of her exploits years prior. This is the question that, despite the movie taking us through the world of the Viper room, Bloom’s stint as a secretary for Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), and the running of his games prior to running her own in a more extravagant and comfortable fashion while using the leverage of the presence of celebrities such as individuals simply referred to as Player X (Michael Cera), comes to rest on the conscience of the audience. One could argue it is these games that give Bloom a sense of purpose. After all, everything she’d ever done or accomplished prior to starting her life in L.A. could be traced back to her father and it was out of this desire to make something out of her own life on her own accord that she leaned so hard into the first great opportunity to come along despite knowing in the back of her head it probably wasn’t the best choice. This adds on another factor though, this idea that everything in her life prior going back to her father and his overbearing nature in an effort to ensure his children never failed and were always the smartest person in the room that hints consistently at something more inherent in Bloom’s internal conflict and drive. Was her father tough on her? Of course he was, but she was equally tough on him-picking fights and for what reason other than to try and exercise the same control over him as he did over her. It is this sense of control-this sense of power over powerful men-that comes to be the prevailing idea; it’s just too bad Sorkin spells it out instead of letting it marinate.
What is most enjoyable about Molly’s Game though, is the way Sorkin utilizes each element of the film to add to the evolution of how Bloom’s story progresses in the ultimately catastrophic way that it does. Each of these sequences being told with the kind of well-informed dialogue and effective editing that convey such elements in an engaging fashion. That is, until about the hour and a half mark where, with fifty minutes still remaining, Bloom moves her operation to New York where the drugs begin to get more frequent, the measures more extreme, and a feeling of necessity to actually break the law in order to cover her own ass come into play. Laws that violated criminal codes. And while this third act is the least interesting visually and the most amateur feeling in terms of direction it does offer the breaking point of this frat house of degenerates that Bloom has built. It would be a sin to allow Sorkin to get away with some of these directorial choices though as some of the visuals are downright jarring. For instance, scenes where Bloom is riding in the backseat of a car and the obvious green screen behind her shines through, or a sequence where a mobster comes to visit after Bloom fails to comply with certain wishes that looks as if it were shot and edited by a first year film student, while what is maybe the most inharmonious scene being when Bloom goes ice skating to remember what it feels like to have that kind of freedom and Chastain literally looks as if she’s pantomiming the act against a painted backdrop. These are all executed with good intentions mind you, but they drag down that already highlighted high style of the piece that much more and leave a sour taste in the mouth of the viewer. This sets the film on a path towards a denouement where all the air has been sucked out of the room and what comes to pass is what is ultimately expected as Sorkin explains everything to its full extent allowing the film to culminate in a scene that is melodramatic at its core, but unarguably effective-especially as performed by the likes of Elba and Chastain. I liked Molly’s Game, but I wanted to love it. Molly’s Game is a movie that acts as if it is about these outlandish lifestyles and immoral felons, but what it’s really about is a woman whose sole purpose is to keep the honor of her name intact who withstands the psychological toll of coming so close to pure success multiple times in her life and losing. It documents a woman who, by all accounts is hard to kill, and has the ability to move from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm which assures us no matter what comes next Bloom will likely be fine, but it isn’t necessarily enough to move this movie about her from something that is a purely entertaining thrill ride into that of an electrifying account that will be long-remembered.