Molly's Game Is Pure Aaron Sorkin, for Better and for Worse
Jessica Chastain anchors the West Wing creator’s directorial debut, a dramatic retelling of an underground poker mogul’s rise and fall.
“Sit down,” Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner) says to his daughter Molly (Jessica Chastain) near the end of Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game. “I’m going to give you three years of therapy in three minutes.” It’s a line seemingly meant to draw scoffs and eye-rolls, a cherry on top of the ostentatious 140-minute sundae that is this movie—a dramatic retelling of the rise and fall of a real-life underground-poker mogul. Sorkin has been one of Hollywood’s premier screenwriters for decades, creating the TV hit The West Wing and scripting films like The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs. For years, Sorkin’s rat-a-tat conversation has been interpreted by famed directors like David Fincher and Mike Nichols. Now, we’re finally getting the unfiltered version. Buckle up.
If you’re fond of Sorkin’s script flourishes (in which his characters lob whole thesauruses of dialogue at each other with practiced ease), his nesting-doll plot structure (which reveals further story depths by cutting backward and forward in various timelines), and his love of long, mission-statement monologues, then Molly’s Game is for you. The biopic digs into the differences between public and private perceptions, topics that have long fascinated Sorkin. It’s also anchored by a steely, assured performance from Chastain, an actress who was born to deliver Sorkin’s soliloquies. Ultimately, I had a great time watching the film, even if it outstayed its welcome by about 20 minutes.
There are very few Hollywood screenwriters these days who can stir up auteurist fascination by themselves. For all of Sorkin’s scripting foibles, there’s a delight to seeing them shine through each of his projects, no matter who’s behind the camera. In adapting the memoir of Molly Bloom, who ran elite poker games for millionaires and celebrities in Los Angeles and New York before getting busted by the FBI, Sorkin has given viewers another tale of unusual fame (having written about presidents, baseball managers, and tech CEOs in the past). But in directing the film himself, he’s shed new light on his deepest interests.
In the hands of Fincher, who made The Social Network, a Sorkin script was haunting, even maniacal, turning the rise of the Facebook inventor Mark Zuckerberg into a tale of a driven, sociopathic conqueror. Danny Boyle, who directed Steve Jobs, framed that story as a glimpse into the life of a remote godlike being, simultaneously a hellish nuisance and a divine inspiration to the people around him. Rob Reiner made The American President into a swooning, autumnal hymn to political idealism, a quality thought dead in the mid-1990s.
Sorkin has always been fascinated with power. But in Molly’s Game, he’s found a new kind of hero—one who’s just as successful as the real-life figures he’s profiled before, though she’s less interested in the spotlight. As the film begins, Molly is under investigation by the FBI for her alleged links to the Russian mafia, whose bosses took part in her poker games, and she hires a lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who tells her the Feds are just fishing for information on the people she rubbed shoulders with. No deal, says Molly. There are confidences she won’t betray.
At the same time, the viewer is shown the beginning of Molly’s rise, as she parlays a job as an assistant to an LA real-estate mogul (Jeremy Strong) into a gig running his poker game, which she spins off into her own enterprise. Soon enough, the rich and influential are clamoring for a seat at her table, partly because of the famous actor always sitting at it, whom she only calls “Player X” (Michael Cera). Sorkin also digs into Molly’s ambitious youth, when she’s a skier trying to make the Olympic team, pushed by her aggressively intellectual father, Larry.
It’s the Hollywood section of the movie that’s the most fun. Sorkin stacks the poker table with wonderful character actors like Bill Camp and Brian d’Arcy James, and tells horrifyingly wacky stories about the millions of dollars these men would squander in the name of ego. At the center of it is Player X, a composite character who represents the most insidious, amoral kind of celebrity, one interested in emotionally dominating competitors as well as bankrupting them. Cera, clad in a ratty hoodie and playing the part with casual callousness, never leans into the mega-star wattage of the actors he’s supposedly standing in for, and he’s all the more magnetic as a result. It’s a sensational performance.
The rest of Molly’s Game is a mixed bag, but as a longtime fan of Sorkin’s work, I was fine to ride the rollercoaster, even if it meant wincing through some of the more tiresome material. Molly’s downfall in New York is overlong and tough to watch, given how much we’ve been prepared for it by the script’s many flash-forwards. Her relationship with her father, the epitome of a Type-A control freak, is not particularly interesting, but it becomes especially grating when it’s offered up as a grander metaphor for her clashes with many sorts of powerful men throughout her life.
When Costner offers the viewer “three years of therapy in three minutes,” he’s basically attempting to sum up the movie in a sweeping monologue. It’s a classic Sorkin trip, but it feels superfluous—Molly’s relationship with her dad is just one prosaic piece of a much bigger puzzle. It could be lifted out of the film easily, considering how much more entertaining it is to watch her match wits with her lawyer, Charlie, who tries to poke at the complexity of her moral high ground. (She named some names in her best-selling autobiography, but refused to betray others to the FBI.)
Viewers also don’t need Costner to take things over at the end, because Chastain is doing just fine on her own. She’s long excelled at playing commanding, if emotionally locked-down, protagonists in films like Zero Dark Thirty, Interstellar, and Miss Sloane. Molly’s Game is another tour de force, a perfect match of script and actress, where Chastain captures her character’s fascinating combination of ambition, ruthlessness, and street smarts. Even if Molly’s Game is a tad too long and a mite too exposition-heavy, its star alone is worth the price of admission.