‘Molly’s Game’: A lesser Sorkin, but entertaining nonetheless

Although it does celebrate a form of female empowerment (which we all need a lot of right now), Molly’s Game — for whatever reason — feels like a film that would’ve fared better in the culture of a year or two ago. Its stakes — will an ambitious young woman spend 2 years in jail, or ruin the lives of a few millionaires — are of the sort that fall somewhere between Lady Bird’s domestic discontent and The Post’s political outrage on the scale of audience interest, and it’s easy to see why it’s all but absent from the awards conversation in spite of the prestige it supposedly wears.

The issue certainly isn’t Jessica Chastain, bringing every inch of her talent to the eponymous Molly Bloom, a skier-turned-waitress-turned-Hollywood assistant-turned-”Poker Princess”, who through a series of peculiar events found herself tangled up with the mafia about a decade ago. Molly’s Game has many parallels to The Wolf of Wall Street, and Molly is effectively a female Jordan Belfort (be it a seemingly more noble version). Few of Chastain’s contemporaries could bring the required compassion, grace and cunning to a part that needs to be the sexiest thing in a chaste film while maintaining the dignity the male counterpart would be granted.

When Sorkin decides to dig into one main character — as with Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Fassbender in The Social Network and Steve Jobs — everyone else tends to be peripheral, and that’s certainly the case here. Idris Elba and Kevin Costner get scenes significant enough to qualify for Best Supporting Actor consideration, and there are nice roles for Brian D’Arcy James, Michael Cera and Bill Camp (whose character, in the film’s strongest sequence, is effectively demonstrative of the perils of gambling addiction).

Maybe it’s because Molly is more quietly ruthless than his usual protagonists, but Sorkin has decided to stick a voiceover on top of this film, and it doesn’t quite work in the context of his style. A Sorkin character is prone to delivering smart-ass comebacks and mic-drops on a regular basis, but in Molly’s Game, Molly verbally smacks another character and then keeps rambling on above the fourth wall, creating a weird paradox of narrative and tone that will perhaps discourage him from experimenting this way again. The script, otherwise, is hard to flaw; he finds the grin-inducing wit in every dull exchange.

The non-linear nature of almost every Sorkin movie, and some of his best TV episodes, is availed-of explosively here: Molly’s Game begins with a ’12 Years Earlier’ prologue, then skips forward, then back, and all around the place, converging with an office meeting between Molly and lawyer Charlie (Elba) in which she tells him about much of what’s happened before. It’s the latest example of the expository interrogation format Sorkin loves so dearly (see accompanying list), and it allows him to squeeze in an awkward, unnecessary parallel between Charlie and his daughter (to whom he prescribes study of The Crucible — only in a Sorkin movie, right?), and Molly and her psychologist dad (Costner). It’s a mere shadow of the excellent dad/daughter exchanges in Steve Jobs, which focused on Joni Mitchell’s resonant “Both Sides Now” rather than a goddamn Arthur Miller play.

As for the poker (this is, after all, a movie about poker), I left Molly’s Game with almost zero greater understanding of the game than I had 140 minutes earlier (did I mention that Molly’s Game is an outrageously long film?), but it’s surprisingly not that boring to watch. Sorkin, clearly learning from Danny Boyle as much as his other collaborators, splices in archive footage to keep the visual tempo on track, and makes extortionate use of the superb Daniel Pemberton score. Sorkin has, in the past, done a great job of Aaronsplaining complicated stuff to his audience; he just doesn’t seem to care if we understand poker or not (this movie could’ve done with a Donna Moss substitute, although Molly herself is perhaps a little too close to that role).

One could never accuse a Sorkin project of being lifeless, or lacking in colour and spirit. Molly’s Game jaunts along as a consistently-watchable indoor thriller with an absolute QUEEN in the lead. It’s one of the best poker movies ever made. But, unless that’s a subgenre you’re particularly passionate about, this doesn’t really feel like a work worthy of revisiting; more a film that — in years to come — will be offhandedly acknowledged with an “Oh yeah, Aaron Sorkin started his directing career with that really long poker movie”.