Aaron Sorkin‘s newest film (and his directorial debut) is super Sorkin-y. Fans of his previous work will rejoice and enjoy this film, as well as recognize some of his most favorite tropes.
Jessica Chastain plays the eponymous Molly Bloom in this true story of how a former Olympic level skier ended up running one of the most exclusive poker games, first in Los Angeles and then New York. Her clientele included movie stars, tech gurus, musicians, wealthy financiers, and. . . the Russian mob. This, of course, brings the FBI down on her, and most of the movie is told in flashback as she and her lawyer (Idris Elba) go through the government’s case against her.
This combination of courtroom drama, sports, and emphasis on quick, quippy dialogue is classic Sorkin. In fact, the opening scene that sets up Molly’s story is perhaps one of the most quintessentially Sorkin-y things possible, almost bordering on self-parody. Other of his favorite tropes that show up? Drugs/addiction, therapy, and honor. He did everything but start quoting Gilbert and Sullivan, although he does make several references to Arthur Miller and James Joyce.
Sorkin is a masterful scriptwriter– a lesser scribe might have gotten bogged down in explaining to us all of the rules of Texas Hold ‘Em poker. But because Molly comes in as a neophyte to poker, we get to go on her journey with her. Instead of getting bogged down in the intricacies and odds of each hand, they speed through the more technical aspects with the help of some clever on-screen tutorials. It’s not quite Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining the math behind credit default swaps in The Big Short, but almost as good. For an example of how not to handle these scenes, you can see Casino Royale where James Bond’s friend Mathis explains every hand of poker to Vesper, deflating the tension of one of the more intense scenes of the film in what is otherwise an almost perfect film.
Chastain and Elba shine with real chemistry, although in some of the longer monologues Elba’s accent come through a little bit. Another standout is Michael Cera, who plays a certain movie star Molly only refers to as “Player X” (one of the key plot points in Molly’s refusal to name the people who played in her game) and has the most interesting character arc in the film. Cera plays one of his fellow actors with a joy and contempt rarely seen, and it makes you wonder what personal interactions Cera may have had with this person in real life to color his portrayal.
But what you really get is a slice of just how awful people are in each of these industries. Sorkin skewers the way the rich and powerful all treat people as things, as commodities to buy, as things to be replaced when you tire of them. And as awful as the mobsters in the movie are (actually most of them are nice guys, giving Molly deniability she knew they were in the mafia), it’s the Hollywood and Wall St. guys who are undeniably the worst.
Molly’s Game becomes a sort of populist critique of the 1% voiced by the most hoity of the toity elites, Sorkin himself. This is neither new nor unexpected territory for him — after all, he gave us President Jed Bartlett on The West Wing as a sort of proto-Obama when Barack was still an unknown state senator and law school professor.
This movie was going along great until its near-climax, when Kevin Costner shows up as Molly’s estranged father to explain the movie. As a trained psychiatrist and college professor, he gives her a “three minute therapy session” to explain her motivations to us in case we weren’t paying attention. The scene is eyeroll and cringe-worthy, immediately derailing this from Oscar-worthy to. . . “Well, that was really good.” Pro-tip: If you want to take a five minute bathroom break when Molly goes to the ice skating rink, you will enjoy the movie more. It’s seriously that bad.
Despite Costner-interference, this is a sort of “Peak Sorkin” moment. It’s great to see him directing his own films, though one wonders if teaming with a more skilled director would instruct him to tone it down a little (and get rid of the Third Act Deus Ex Therapist). But the rest of the film is amazing.
Fans of Sorkin will enjoy themselves, and other audiences will also likely have a good time. Oscar buzz for this film for Chastain, Elba, and Sorkin himself are warranted. Just beware the Costner.
4 out of 5