- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
How you feel about “Molly’s Game” might be predicated entirely on how you feel about Aaron Sorkin — the rhythms of his chatter, the way he imagines heroes and villains, the whole Sorkin thing.
Based on the mildly scandalous memoir “Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker,” “Molly’s Game” is the Sorkin that Sorkinites have been waiting for.
It’s more Sorkin than Toby Ziegler dressing down President Bartlet, or “You can’t handle the truth!!” or the “West Wing” season finale “What Kind of Day Has it Been?” For good and ill, Peak Sorkin has been achieved — consider yourselves warned.
The longtime screenwriter/showrunner finally steps behind the camera for this story of, well, exactly the sort of person Sorkin loves — a complicated overachiever surrounded by people who talk exactly like she does.
Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) is a world-class skier with a hard-driving psychologist dad (Kevin Costner, never better than playing a jerk) whose life was all planned out (athletics, law school, Internet startup) until a freak accident on the moguls derails her Olympic dreams.
The opening sequence, which details the catastrophe, is wordy (thanks to a voice-over) but cheekily edited and vibrant, displaying an energy that seems, let’s call it unusual, for a guy who made his bones on folks standing around talking. Then there’s a gripping scene in which our heroine is busted by the FBI for operating an illegal poker game, two full years after she stopped doing that sort of thing. Indeed, the first hour or so is a blast — could Sorkin be revealing himself as a genuinely kinetic director?
Nah. We’re back to walking and talking (and overexplaining) pretty soon after. Cutting between flashbacks and present day (much like the Sorkin-scribed “The Social Network”), Bloom decamps for Los Angeles and becomes the assistant to an abusive piece of work and real estate mogul she calls Dean Keith (a perfectly vile Jeremy Strong).
Soon she is running his poker game for Hollywood’s entertainment elite: rappers, techbros and actors, one of whom is dubbed “Player X” (Michael Cera) — a guy who seems an awful lot like, but is legally distinct from, Tobey Maguire.
With some seemingly friendly encouragement from X, Bloom breaks free of Keith and starts her own high-stakes game, taking all the clients with her. All is well for a bit — she’s only taking tips instead of a rake (a cut of the pot), so it’s a legal game. The worst thing that happens is that occasionally a player busts out hard. There is a stomach-churning scene, anchored by the always-excellent Bill Camp, where a smart player loses his mind after being bluffed by a moron — man, gambling addiction is grim.
Then the drugs start. Then the mob gets interested — then very, very interested.
In the present day, Bloom eventually finds an attorney in one Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). A bit of an overbearing father himself, Jaffey is skeptical about representing Bloom — her crimes are a little too heavy for his line of work — but then, doggonit, she wins him over, possibly by his becoming convinced that a) she didn’t do anything all that terrible, and b) her fidelity to her ethical code is noble as heck.
Sorkin is a perfectly competent director but not an exciting or savvy one: There’s entirely too much voice-over, scenes are framed for chatter rather than drama and nobody bites off more than they can chew — though, if we’re changing details around, why not let Elba do Sorkin’s light-speed chatter in his own accent?
This isn’t really a movie about poker — the few serious poker scenes involve insets of cards to let you know what is going on, a la “The Big Short,” the movie that “Molly’s Game” often most resembles. (Sorkin wrote the script for “Moneyball,” the book for which was written by “Big Short” author Michael Lewis.)
“Molly’s Game” is a movie, like many of Sorkin’s scripts, about a workplace run by a charismatic genius. Bloom must offer her players everything but herself and keep them coming back for more. Eventually, because dudes in Sorkin’s movies are often either well-meaning jerks or just jerks, the men in her life turn against her.
And, yeah, that aspect can no longer be ignored. There is much to enjoy about “Molly’s Game,” and it does a solid job making the case for Bloom’s integrity in the face of very long odds. But if this is Sorkin’s idea of a mea culpa to critics who found his sexism tedious even in “the West Wing” days, then, brother, we have some work to do.
Dealing with garbage men while maintaining a level head doesn’t make Bloom, as Sorkin put it in an interview, “a feminist icon” — that’s just what women have to do to make it from the snooze button to bedtime without going to jail.
From the fact that Elba gets the Big Explainy Speech about Bloom’s role in this much larger system of crime and punishment to a jaw-droppingly ill-advised Big Explainy Speech that her shrink father gives her about why she is feeling what she is feeling, “Molly’s Game” is absolutely convinced of its nobility while too often seeming like a piece by a guy whom one suspects starts a lot of sentences with “As the father of a daughter …”
Which is to say, the flop is promising, the turn is shaky and by the time the river rolls around, you can’t be blamed for folding.