First you get the poker, then you get the power, then you get indicted.
Aaron Sorkin is one of the most instantly recognizable writers of the modern era, whether or not you have any idea what he looks like. The creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom, and the screenwriter of The Social Network and Steve Jobs, has a knack – or at least a propensity – for telling stories about fast-talking intellectuals whose brains are overflowing with observations and anecdotes, most of which are thematically important by the end of the conversation… a conversation that had at least a 40% chance of being given while the characters walked somewhere.
Sorkin’s particular writing style has a tendency to overpower even the most dynamic filmmakers. It would be difficult to confuse the films of David Fincher and Danny Boyle, and yet their films The Social Network and Steve Jobs are clearly connected, for better or worse, by a single voice. So it was always going to be interesting to see what such a distinctive writer would do in his directorial debut, and find out whether he’s as sharp behind a camera as he is with a pen.
The answer to that question lies in Molly’s Game, a biographical drama about Molly Bloom, who ran a high-stakes poker game for rich people, famous people, powerful people, and eventually dangerous criminals. It was a nebulously legal line of work in the first place and lines are eventually crossed, until ultimately Molly Bloom was indicted by the FBI and forced to explain herself, and possibly ruin the lives of her players.
Aaron Sorkin and poker are a pretty obvious match, since they both build anticipation through the use of deception and repartee. Molly’s Game is at its best when it’s wrapped up in the high-stakes poker games, the unexpected turns of fate, and the spirit of competition that drives Molly Bloom to take charge of the game and the players.
But Molly’s Game is more than a poker movie, and that’s kind of a shame. The unpredictability of the poker games are where most of the suspense comes from. The legal battle, and the ongoing battle for moral superiority between Molly (Jessica Chastain) and her attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), play like foregone conclusions. Sorkin seems fascinated with why Molly excelled at this unusual occupation, and his obvious appreciation for her and her accomplishments make the film play too much like a straw-man argument whenever anyone else is talking.
Chastain’s performance is just as sharp as you’d expect. Most of the rest of the cast is merely in her orbit, challenging her and occasionally forcing her into personal subplots that she’d rather not be a part of. Elba holds his own quite nicely but it’s Michael Cera who steals the most scenes as a celebrity poker player with an irresistible urge not just to play poker, but to destroy his opponents in every conceivable way. It’s an oddly effective example of casting against type, and a memorable one at that.
Molly Bloom is a fascinating character on an interesting journey, but her story is a series of segments, and some are more memorable than others. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for Molly’s Game doesn’t come together as effectively as his others, and behind the camera he doesn’t have the cinematic pizazz necessary to distract us from that script’s shortcomings.
Still, it’s an intelligent and well-realized drama. It’s just not as dramatic as it could be.