If there was ever a writer who should be allowed to run amok on a movie, with no apparent oversight or control, that writer is not Aaron Sorkin. It pains me to say this, both because I’m a fan of his and because 2017 desperately needs some good movies at the end of the year, but Molly’s Game does very little right. This is a clunky, pointless, overlong movie without a whiff of artistry, emotion, or character.
Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) was an Olympic skier who ended up running underground high-stakes poker games in New York and LA that attracted movie stars, rock stars, and (perhaps) foreign gangsters. Sounds juicy enough, but ultimately there isn’t much to this story—or at least not the version of it that Sorkin (directing his own movie for the first time) chooses to tell.
After a prologue, Sorkin opens Molly’s Game with the FBI raiding Molly’s house and seizing her assets. This was seemingly done to foreground the character of Molly’s lawyer Charlie (Idris Elba), and we repeatedly cut between scenes of Molly’s growth as a poker ringleader and ones of her explaining shit to Charlie. It’s an unnecessary structure that stalls momentum, gives too much away too early, and reduces the drama—especially because Charlie is so dramatically flimsy.
Both visually and thematically, Sorkin seems unclear of what to linger on, what to zoom past. He tries out predictable virgin director stuff that doesn’t work—drawing things on the screen, flashing back to a line of dialogue said moments ago—and overall has little visual eye. He royally botches the prologue sequence depicting Molly’s fateful skiing crash, cramming it so full of nonsense (narration, cutaways to other professional athletes, flashbacks) that it almost made me laugh; it’s like watching a bad news report. Freezing the crash with Molly in midair to remind us of a previous injury she suffered—which we just learned about moments ago—is bad filmmaking, plain and simple.
That goes double for all the voice-over—quite possibly the most I’ve ever heard in a movie—which neuters a host of moments (Molly organizing her first game, the clever ways she recruits players, her turn to drugs) that might have been dramatic. The dialogue, diegetic or otherwise, just doesn’t land; as was true in Steve Jobs, it’s too on-the-nose when it isn’t banal. And in a strange maneuver, Sorkin awkwardly steals one of the most famous lines in movie history, when a character responds to another’s self-deprecating comment with “well, nobody’s perfect.”
Those are micro issues. In a broader sense, the whole thing feels pointless—not entertaining enough to be this devoid of meaning or purpose—and I have no idea who’s going to like it. It’s a 2-hour-and-20 minute movie with no relationships. The second-biggest character (Charlie) is a zero, and Elba and Chastain struggle through unfocused, overly busy interactions that appear to have a bevy of disagreements but aren’t really about anything. Honestly, the only conflict in the movie that feels worthwhile is the question of whether she’ll sell out her high-profile clients to save her own skin, but even that gets overplayed; by the end, it feels like she and Charlie are having the same fight over and over again. This movie is exhausting; watching it is like dating a Stairmaster.
It doesn’t help that the deck is stacked so heavily in Molly’s favor. Sorkin spent six months with the real Molly to prepare, and that’s great and all, but his closeness to the subject might be why there’s a giant flashing “MOLLY IS RIGHT AND PERFECT” sign all over the place here.
But that’s kinda what he does. His workplace shows (The Newsroom notably, but even The West Wing) robbed themselves of opportunities for drama because everyone had to possess such an unimpeachable moral code, and the same simplicity crops up here. Molly is a heroic victim of an unfair system. Charlie, like most Sorkin mentor characters, is blandly perfect. The poker players’ inappropriateness never rises above lame taunts and half-assed flirts. And, wouldn’t ya know it, the gruff dad (Kevin Costner) really loved her all along—as he spells out in a truly terrible climactic therapy scene.
On the whole, this softness results in a movie without any sense of danger or complexity, and it ruins Molly’s character. The New York Times called it “patronizing, because by attempting to portray Molly as any kind of female victim—and by glossing over her culpability—Mr. Sorkin ends up denying this character her agency.”
Sorkin’s willingness to truly delve into disturbed characters is one reason why The Social Network remains comfortably his best movie. He has greatness in him, but for all his gifts, there have always been nagging concerns arising from all his other work—that he over-uses framing devices; that he prefers sniping to character; that he doesn’t have a compelling, adult grasp on relationships or sex or love; that too many of his lines come pre-packaged with a timid, it’s-all-ok smile underneath. You wonder whether he gravitates towards courtroom dramas and workplace interactions because, while they set up obvious battle lines, they allow him to ignore a large subset of human emotions.
Chastain, for her part, is a good actress who seems too dignified for this role—not ebullient enough, not messy enough, not engaged enough with all that voice-over. And it just feels like there’s a more interesting movie in here than ‘Molly is a crusading hero fighting a dumb justice system and aw man what did her dad think about her?’ Like, say, why do celebrities with a lifetime of financial security feel the need to risk it all over cards with friends? What did Molly’s friends (unseen here) think about her job? Was it empowering or demeaning? The real Molly wrote that Tobey Maguire once demanded she stand on a table and bark like a seal for a $1,000 tip—and the absence of that memory from this movie illustrates how the quest to make everyone nice and inoffensive kills the conversation.
Photos courtesy of the film’s Twitter account.