As a writer, Aaron Sorkin has an ability to make me care about topics I don’t usually give two shits about. I’m not particularly interested in the d-bags who created Facebook, but The Social Network makes that story as compelling as it’s going to get. The same goes for Steve Jobs (Steve Jobs), Sabermetrics (Moneyball), and Tom Cruise as a lawyer (A Few Good Men). His directorial debut, Molly’s Game, for which he also wrote the script, follows a familiar pattern.
In general, poker isn’t of that much interest. It’s a fine game, the strategy and gamesmanship offer intrigue, but like golf and pool, playing is one thing, watching is another. Adapting the memoir by Molly Bloom, the so-called “Poker Princess,” who, at 26, ran perhaps the most exclusive poker game in the world, all of Sorkin’s trademarks are present and accounted for. There’s the razor edged dialogue, layered narrative structure that plays fast and loose with time constraints, and instead of being about the thing it’s about on the surface—poker in this instance—his script hinges on the inherent human drama that unfolds between hands.
But as much as this is “an Aaron Sorkin movie,” Molly’s Game is really the Jessica Chastain show. A former Olympic contender, Harvard law accepted future lawyer, and all-around furiously driven competitor, Molly overflows with confidence and is usually the smartest person in any given room. She’s also a raging bundle of neurosis and hang ups, thanks in part to her overbearing psychology professor father (Kevin Costner).
And Chastain gives her everything she has. She’s brash and bold at the same time she’s insecure and damaged. Her confidence comes from her ability and belief in herself, fueled by a need to continually prove herself, and propped up by a burgeoning drug habit. And in true ascend-and-fall, rags-to-riches-to-rags-again heroic fashion, she rises fast and makes all the right decisions. Until she doesn’t.
Molly’s Game plays out in three timelines. Another favorite Sorkin move. We see young skier Molly and her rocky familial relationship; we witness her climb up the ranks, from personal assistant to poker princess, rubbing elbows with moguls and celebs like Player X (Michael Cera), rumored to be an amalgam of famous Hollywood regulars at the game; and Sorkin shows us Molly’s tumble from grace and the inevitable court case as she, much to the chagrin of her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), refuses to name names.
Though this is Sorkin’s first time behind the camera, he’s worked with big time directors like David Fincher and Danny Boyle, and he’s obviously learned quite a bit hanging around with those folks. At times, Molly’s Game feels a bit like watching a less fastidious Fincher, and with his writing chops, it resembles the work of a much more polished director—not to say there aren’t hiccups, but it’s hard to tell it’s the work of a first-timer.
Molly’s Game has a propulsive momentum that, along with Jessica Chastain’s bravura performance, pushes the narrative at a strong clip. Elba provides a nice foil for Chastain; Charlie sees through Molly’s bullshit and brave exterior and cuts to who she is when she’s not guarding against attack from all sides.
This forward press, unfortunately, falters in the third act. The film doesn’t derail entirely, it simply takes a turn into bland, familiar territory. The true life of the script is in the poker games and watching Molly’s climb. Sorkin and Chastain infuse these scenes with a verve and energy that evaporates in the impending moments that take place in courtrooms and law offices. Just typing that it sounds so much less intriguing. Coupled with an awkward, shoehorned-in late-in-the-game appearance from dear old dad, the narrative peters out and limps toward the end.
When it peaks, Sorkin and company provide a thrilling, tension-filled glimpse into the glamorous and seedy world of high-stakes back-room poker games. It’s unfortunate that Molly’s Game ends with a fizzle, not the pop it deserves, but it’s still well worth a look, if for nothing more than Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba. [Grade: B]