Molly’s Game is a lot like having a full meal at McDonald’s. There is zero nutritional value, and you may hate yourself for indulging instead of eating something healthier, but it just looks so fun, and damn it if it doesn’t taste good for a little while. In his first time out as a director, Aaron Sorkin brings all of the glitz that his stories require, along with a bouncy script, but he never quite finds the substance that David Fincher and Bennett Miller used to elevate the material. And when coupled with the fact that Sorkin overindulges in all of his classic Sorkinisms, it just makes for a fun film that tries to get by on style over substance.
In 2004, former Olympic athlete and planned future lawyer Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) moves to L.A. to see the world. While working as an assistant for a douchebag real estate agent (Jeremy Strong), Molly learns about the lucrative world of underground poker amongst the rich men of the world. Breaking off on her own, the 26-year-old used her wits, her brains, and her looks to put together the biggest underground poker game in history, finding members in Hollywood A-listers, hedge fund managers, major politicians, and even the Russian mob, which eventually brings the FBI to her doorstep, falsely accusing her of crimes and leaving her fate in the hands of talented lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba).
Your very first takeaway from this film, almost by the end of the first fifteen minutes, is that this film is very Sorkinian, and not always in a good way. Basically, every trope and trick that he has ever used is here, almost as if by order of checklist, and often in the laziest, most cliché ways possible. You want voiceover to help further the plot and to allow an actor to show off for hours on end? Look no further than Jessica Chastain spitting off thirty poker terms in thirty seconds while bragging about herself constantly (ooh! Hero with an ego! That’s another Sorkinism, time to take a shot). You want pop culture references? How about we shoehorn in some references to The Crucible, except we do this by making the weirdest, dumbest joke possible (I’m still scratching my head over it), and then bringing it back half-assed at the end without any exploration of why it’s important to the film’s themes (demonization of women to preserve a hierarchy). Oh, and if you’ve ever watched A Few Good Men, The West Wing, The Social Network, or Steve Jobs, you’ll know that complicated father figures are bound to make an appearance, and I’ve gotta say, it’s a little annoying to see a strong (?) female character boiled down to “My dad was a dick but maybe he did it because he loved me?” We really need to retire the daddy issues trope. However, beyond that, there are several Sorkin-esque scenes that just never seem to hit their mark – or worse, miss so far it almost affects the movie. Idris Elba has a monologue near the film’s climax that is played as if it is an emotionally powerful moment of support, but features such ham-fisted dialogue that it feels forced; even worse, the speech he gives so badly undercuts his client’s trust and case that it feels worthy of disbarment. However, I’ll let that scene slide, because at least it wasn’t Graham Greene’s big scene as the judge. I won’t give it away, but his final monologue is so on-the-nose, unrealistic, dumb, and ridiculous, I almost got up and walked out of the theater to catch my breath. It almost feels like Aaron Sorkin just gave up writing the character, stepped onto the movie set, shouted all of his opinions at the audience, and reached out to slap us and yell “YA GET IT, DUMMY?!?” It’s a truly terrible scene.
And yet the second thing you’ll notice about this movie is that it’s really, really fun. I’m not joking, it’s an enjoyable, decent movie. That dialogue may be the hackiest of Sorkin’s career, but when he gets the right dialogue into the mouths of the right actors, my God it’s just a joy. The poker scenes are electric, the details about the celebrities are humorous, and watching Molly go to great lengths to design the greatest poker game in the history of the world is just thrilling to watch. Take, for example, the Bad Brad scene. This is a near-perfect example of electric filmmaking. First, you have the composition, as the scene is shot, written, and directed with a palpable energy. Then, you have the editing, which keeps things moving snappily and fluidly, keeping our attention wrapped around the action. And finally, you have the performances, given by Brian d’Arcy James and Bill Camp, and both make the case for why Broadway actors should be the exclusive choice for all movies, ever. What’s more, the film has a timely, exciting feeling surrounding the way Molly is treated by the elite, powerful men. When she gives a speech to a popular rock star about the inappropriate emails he sent her, and how if he’s not careful, a “less humored woman” will bring down his hubristic lifestyle. While the scene was written well before the current #MeToo movement, it has a striking prescience about what women have put up with and feel in the face of men with big egos and bigger power trips. In spite of its flaws, this is still a film where the actors are loose, the writing is often snappy, and things feel generally entertaining.
However, while my opinion of the film was generally positive, I did leave with a few questions that left a sour taste in my mouth. Mainly, I’m curious what the general message of the film is. For example, there seems to be a study of the way the FBI tries to legally coerce confessions and deals, intentionally arresting people overly armed and through “legal” seizures of legally attained funds. The film’s heart is in the right place – the over-militarization of America’s justice system is worthy of critique, but it’s really hard to empathize with a white woman with mob connections feeling wronged by the system when these tactics are generally seen in urban lower-class districts towards the average POC. Is that the point of the film? To question that? Or what about the rationalization for Molly’s behavior. Is it because she hates men? Is that a red herring? Would it be any less weird if it was? Even outside that message, why did Sorkin allow this film to go so off the rails in the final fifteen minutes? Why is there a deus ex Kevin Costner, in the film’s worst sequence? And finally, what are we to make of Molly Bloom? I’m not entirely fond of the way the film paints her. Aaron Sorkin has been the master of showing both sides of brilliant men, in their massive successes and their massive flaws, and yet he hasn’t made a truly compelling female character in the same way as Molly yet. This decision has sparked controversy for years, and what does he do when he finally writes a film about a woman? He simplifies her story and overly paints her as a saint. This is an incredibly weird decision, as Molly’s flaws are some of the most egregious of all his characters. Unlike, say, Steve Jobs, Molly Bloom may actually have blood on her hands – something that is blatantly said in the film. And yet instead of having her atone for these lives she’s ruined, the film paints it as, “Oh, she’s sorry, but she’s not really to blame, so oh well!” I wanted more exploration of Molly’s life, especially her faults beyond her successes.
The acting in this movie never feels as electric as past Sorkin efforts, but it is still compelling nonetheless. Jessica Chastain never feels as alive as she did in The Help or Zero Dark Thirty, but she still knows how to deliver a killer monologue when needed. Idris Elba also has his faults and his muted moments, but he is great in the moments where he gets to truly shine. As mentioned above, Bill Camp and Brian d’Arcy James are both wonderful in small, but great roles. The cameos by character actors feel truly fun to watch (Steve from Stranger Things! Chris O’Dowd!) And personally, while I wasn’t a fan of Kevin Costner (this dialogue isn’t for him) or Jeremy Strong (he plays Dean like he just walked off the set of Entourage), neither are truly terrible. However, my favorite part of this movie is Michael Cera. Let’s put aside the fact that he’s great in this film, scheming and sinister while maintaining his childlike, innocent face, or the fact that his Player X gets the best lines and the best deliveries (“I don’t like winning. I like destroying lives”). No, what I like best is that, if you know anything about the Molly Bloom case, Michael Cera is playing Tobey Maguire, a fact that not only makes this a more nuanced performance, but also makes everything ten times funnier if you imagine Emo Peter doing these terrible things. God bless you, Michael Cera.
Molly’s Game is a great rental movie. It’s not high art, and it’s not anything you need to rush out to see, but there’s an entertaining story that Aaron Sorkin competently tells. Sure, the dialogue feels hackneyed, and the father figure stuff seems forced, it’s too long, and the film raises a bunch of unanswered questions. But we still get to watch a brilliant woman and her team of Genius Playboy Bunnies rip off rich douchebags using only their wits. That alone feels worth it.