Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut is pretty much what one would expect going into the film, classically Sorkin in a dialogue-heavy, sure to make some annoyed and delight others. Molly’s Game is alright. There’s a lot to want to come out of it, but the reality is that the real-life story is still being written, and Aaron Sorkin happens to be friends with some of Molly’s players.
Based on the memoir by high-stakes poker game runner Molly Bloom, Molly’s Game follows the former Olympian’s journey from athletic aspirations, to her arrest and sentencing for organizing an illegal gambling operation. Bloom is played by Jessica Chastain, who has to deliver much of the film’s story through narration. This becomes a little bit of an issue at times throughout the two and a half hour film because Sorkin is best when he writes dialogue. While there are conversations in this film, they occur in largely confrontational moments, leaving little breathing room between scenes.
Molly Bloom is a talented former skier, competitive in women’s moguls, but has to quit after a freak accident during the Olympic qualifiers. She hopes to become a lawyer, going so far as to take the LSAT and score well, only to find herself working as an office assistant to an asshole. Her boss orders her to set up a weekly poker game at “The Cobra Club” (The Viper Room) with 9 extremely wealthy and powerful clients. The buy-in? $10,000. Molly uses her second job as a cocktail waitress to recruit potential players, giving commission to her coworkers for every find. She quickly finds that even though she doesn’t know how to play poker, she could learn, and soon becomes a powerful person in underground gambling. She branches out to form her own version of her boss’s games, stealing his clients, and setting up shop in nice hotels with a new buy-in of $50,000.
At the beginning, Molly’s operation was within the bounds of the law. Addiction and greed, both hers and her clients’, took over and the games went out of her control. She claims that she would vet each player before they could play, to make sure that they were able to pay up at the end and that they wouldn’t bring trouble. One player’s arrest for running a Ponzi scheme ruined her games in L.A., so Molly started over in New York, but she loses control over the operation again in an attempt to compensate for players who would lose and could not pay.
It seems that in an attempt to tell the actual story, Sorkin defers to narration, possibly due to Molly’s lack of confidants in her personal life. Sorkin seems to worry about losing the audience’s understanding of the story and pushes away from the actors’ interpretations of his work. I appreciated the narration of the poker scenes, personally, but some of the scenes just didn’t need it. Sorkin underestimates the audience, as if we are idiots, which ultimately holds the film back. I’m sure that there could have been a number of creative ways to tell this story without a basic narration patching the parts together. He doesn’t use the actors cast in the film to their fullest, and it’s a bit weird.
Like Sorkin, Molly herself holds back: her refusal to name names is mirrored in Sorkin’s concealment of the names some of the Hollywood power players. Those actors aren’t secretly connected to Molly’s poker games; in fact, they’re well known for their taste in gambling: Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon all participated. Perhaps these names weren’t given now in an attempt to protect their reputations. It’s clear early on through the casting of Michael Cera as “Player X” that the audience can spend the rest of the movie racking their brains trying to figure out who X is, based solely on equivalencies of Cera’s fame and the timeline of the film (you can find the answer fairly quickly).
The best scenes are largely between Molly and her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who is underused. Sorkin, Chastain, and Elba together should be a firestorm, but Sorkin uses his narration as a bit of a crutch rather than a peek into the calculating mind of the subject. Had Sorkin held back more in the middle section the way he does toward the end of the film, there would be a significantly greater end product. As much as I enjoyed The Social Network, it does feel as though Sorkin hoped to re-create that success here, but sometimes it’s better to get out of one’s own way and allow the story to play out.