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.