Aaron Sorkin has made a career out of intricately created narratives when the language is heightened, the stakes high and the foibles of his complex characters drawn with sophisticated shades of moral ambivalence. With Molly’s Game, his directorial debut, he’s chosen a powerhouse of a non-fiction character, a woman whose rise and fall both as a world class athlete and a poker phenom provides one of his richest and compelling characters yet on which to hang one of his trademark narratives.
The film begins with Molly’s Olympic trials, explaining in rat-a-tat voiceover how freestyle mogul skiing works, the physics of the descent and the pain of when it all goes wrong. It follows her into her almost accidental ascendancy into the world of celebrity poker, where the so-called “Poker Princess” eventually grew a game of international renown, where billionaires could rub hands with movie stars while playing in primo high stakes hold ‘em cash games.
The entire film rests upon the charisma and believability of Molly, and it’s here that Jessica Chastain shines in ways that are likely to get her serious consideration come awards time. Chastain’s takes have been often hit or miss themselves, but here she’s got not only a powerful, intelligent character to truly delve into and showcase her acting chops, she also has Sorkin’s actorly turns of phrases to elevate things even further. It’s a perfect match and a perfect casting decision, and absolutely the thing the film gets most right.
The rest of the film is a bit of a mixed bag. Sorkin structures the tale as a reminiscence to Molly’s lawyer (played with suitable force and erudition by Idris Elba), bouncing back and forth between her earliest days, the building of the game, and her relationship with “Player X” (Michael Cera), her trump card into a world that she otherwise would be locked out of.
Echoes to Scorsese are aplenty, especially Goodfellas and the criminally underloved Casino, but Sorkin’s script doesn’t have the same tenacity or operatic scope of those films, borrowing the kinetic style and voice overs but lacking the inspired attention to detail and deft, Catholic sensibility about the moral quandaries at play. Still, to slam Sorkin for not being Scorsese seems churlish at best, and if he’s going to borrow for his own little crime drama he might as well from the master.
For what sets Molly apart is that she’s a criminal with a code, refusing to spill the beans even to this day on many of the players at her game. The film is even more coy and cautious about people already named in some of the indictments, making a big deal that those names were provided even if for metatextual reasons the film doesn’t give the audience the same courtesy. The closest to genuine snark is when Molly derides Player X for his greenscreen work, a jab for those in the know about his real identity (hint: it’s Tobey McGuire). These were megastars at the game – from DiCaprio to Affleck and Damon, all intertwined with Russian Mobsters, Israeli billionaires, hedge fund douchebags and more. It’s a stew of high stakes drama and the stuff of a fascinating storyline.
While Molly’s role is impeccably drawn, others feel like mere fodder for her storyline, from Kevin Costner’s overconfident father figure through to a rambling, drunken Chris O’Dowd as one of her marks. These performers provide scenes important for the construction of the plot, but always feel tacked on and distracting. Cera’s role is even more thankless – mostly sneering and sarcasm – but he manages to do a lot with a little, providing the closest the film comes to an ambivalent, complex character outside of Molly or her lawyer’s storyline.
When Sorkin overtly quotes The Crucible one's indulgence is stretched pretty thin, and even undercutting it with a joke does little to mask the artifice of the moment. And for players, the poker montages and explanations may seem a little tired, but at least the play is reasonably well done (unlike you, Casino Royale), and while it’s no Rounders there are some half-decent card sequences at work.
In the end, all is focused on Chastain and her ability to connect with the audience, and here she succeeds in ways better than almost any role in her career. It’s a fascinating story fairly well told with a committed take by its lead, and for that alone Molly’s Game seems to have the winning hand.