Mark Reviews Movies

Molly's Game


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Michael Cera, Kevin Costner, Jeremy Strong, Chris O'Dowd, J.C. MacKenzie, Brian d'Arcy James, Bill Camp

MPAA Rating: R (for language, drug content and some violence)

Running Time: 2:20

Release Date: 12/25/17 (limited); 1/5/18 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 24, 2017

The feature directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, Molly's Game is a slight biography, a rambling exposé of an underground poker game featuring plenty of rich and/or famous people, and a shallow psychological study of its main character. The movie's primary allure in is its disclosure the game and its participants. The mechanics of it are fascinating, and Sorkin's screenplay becomes a sort of guessing game, as we try to put names to the various players' anonymous avatars in the movie.

The story is a true one, based on Molly Bloom's book of the same name. Before she was 30, Bloom had started her own company, was hanging out with celebrities and Wall Street types, and had amassed a surprising fortune for someone who first appeared in Los Angeles as a waitress at a night club. That's not to disparage waitresses. It's only to point out that Bloom's rise looks like the archetypical idea of the American Dream—from humble beginnings and all of that.

The movie shows how Molly (Jessica Chastain) more or less falls into the game. While working at the club, she also takes a side job as an assistant for a shady businessman named Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong). The game is technically Dean's enterprise, but he's incompetent enough that Molly's know-how with basic bookkeeping makes her a seemingly irreplaceable asset. The game's stature grows under Molly's management, and a famous actor, known only as "Player X" in the movie (and played by Michael Cera), thinks that Molly could set off on her own and, in the process, find him new players off of whom he could win some more money.

The story proper begins here, but Sorkin's narrative begins both before and after the formation of Molly's small poker empire. In her younger days, she was a skier, hoping to make it to the Olympics, only to have her hopes dashed by a small twig on the slope. Sorkin prepares us for a deluge of details—of both the big-picture and trivial varieties—in the opening scene, with a drawing of the ski slope's angle superimposed on the frame and a tidy summary of Molly's understanding of fate at the end.

This is, has been, and, apparently, will continue to be Sorkin's custom. His characters—all of whom sound suspiciously similar in tone and vocabulary—move from snappy back-and-forth rejoinders, to cultural references for examples and emphasis, and to some grand, overarching theme for the characters to define themselves and their outlook on the world. Over his career as a writer, we have grown accustomed to Sorkin's way, and it's clear that he has become accustomed to it, too.

In his first time as the director of one of his own screenplays, though, Sorkin has given himself carte blanche to indulge in as many narrative leaps, dramatic conventions, and dialogue-driven scenes as he can imagine. It's an overload of information, put forward within a narrative that jumps from the past to the movie's present, while characters essentially argue over the same points again and again, with the only changes being ones of language.

The story's past is Molly's rise, from Dean's assistant in Los Angeles to the proprietor of her own game in New York. Its present is after a federal sting operation on the New York game, since it appears that Molly has become involved with the Russian mob. The central question is not if she knew this important detail, not if she will give up the names of the players in order to cut a deal with federal prosecutors, and not if she technically did anything illegal in running the game. No, the ultimate question is what makes Molly tick.

So much of the movie is spent on the details, told in flashback—mostly to us but also to her attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), serving as a handy narrative device and not much else—as the court proceedings and legal negotiations unfold, that it becomes overwhelming. After the repeated introductions to new players, stories about their respective ways of playing and/or losing, and outlines of how Molly's business operates, the story also starts to show its superficiality.

In the end, none of it really matters in the story's big picture, which is about a woman who was driven to compete, as well as succeed, by her father (played by Kevin Costner) and never learned to temper that drive. We learn all of this, because Molly's father is a psychologist, who helpfully explains all of her various issues to her in a scene that is so self-aware of its convenience and contrivance that it's doubly difficult to take it seriously.

Through it all, though, is a strong performance from Chastain, who tells us everything we need to know about Molly through her intrinsic intelligence, savvy, and attitude. Chastain is the glue holding Molly's Game together, but even she can't make all of the disparate pieces fit in a convincing way.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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