‘Molly’s Game’ is Great Chastain but Only OK Sorkin

Molly's_GameAaron Sorkin could write directions for baking a fruitcake and it would still be more interesting and invigorating than most people’s screenplays.

“Molly’s Game” marks Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut from a script of his own hand. Like most all his work, it is based off a memoir and in this case he chronicles the story of Molly Bloom, a 20-something who goes from a cocktail waitress to running the most successful underground poker games in Los Angeles and New York City. Jessica Chastain stars as Bloom alongside Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Brian d’Arcy James, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp and Jeremy Strong.

I am a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin’s writing. To me his work is poetry and the rapid-fire delivery and dictionary-defining monologues are masterclass, and they make the most basic and seemingly boring situations, like a deposition or MLB front office meeting, edge-of-your-seat drama. So if you told me Sorkin was given a cast headed by Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba and a plot involving Hollywood elites, Wall Street bankers and the Russian mafia I would tell you to shut up and take my money now. And that is why it is unfortunate that “Molly’s Game” is just…alright.

Jessica Chastain is one of the best actresses working today and her talent only seems to be somehow improving. Her Molly is a character that has all the smarts and ambition in the world however isn’t quite sure what to do with them. We see Molly has a conscience and a backbone when it comes to keeping the names of her poker clients private (a not-so-subtle metaphor for her damaged spine she injured as a child). However it would have been nice to see Molly have a bit more of an arc, and only once does she mention that she was “off her game” and let drugs take control of her life but you never would know if she hadn’t told her lawyer.

Speaking of, Idris Elba plays the aforementioned lawyer and he continues to be a delight in everything he shows up in. Elba is essentially playing his Charles Miner character from “The Office,” being good at his job while having a dry sense of humor about him but will shout when needed. He has one trademark Sorkin monologue about why Molly deserves to have all the charges against her dropped but besides that he is soft-spoken and a nice presence in the modern day setting.

Michael Cera gives arguably his best career performance in an against-the-type role where he gets to play a mean-spirited, cutthroat actor named “Player X,” a composite character of Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck, all of which were celebrities who actually played in Molly’s games. Bill Camp and Kevin Costner also give heart-wrenching performances in limited screen time.

This is probably the least Sorkin-y script Aaron Sorkin has ever written which isn’t necessarily a flaw of the film but was to my chagrin. There aren’t too many fantastic, pleasing to the ear retorts like Mark Zuckerberg’s “you have part of my attention, you have the minimum amount” or walk-and-talks, and I only can remember one instance of a character answering a question that was asked of them a minute earlier.

Sorkin the director is a mixed bag. As far as working with his script to get good performances out of his actors he is very solid but when it comes to controlling a narrative he is less masterful. The film kind of moves along like a series of “best hits” and not as a cohesive product, and it flashes back and forth between Molly talking to her lawyer in 2014 and the events playing out in the early 2000s.

We have seen that Sorkin knows how to flash back-and-forth between modern-set recollection scenes in courtrooms and lawyer offices; his perfect script for “The Social Network” proves it. But here it creates some riffs and stops the film from building up any true steam or momentum and when a film is 140 minutes long like this one (unjustifiably) is, a tight narrative is key. I was never bored watching this but there were points where I wished things would get moving.

“Molly’s Game” is the weaker of Aaron Sorkin’s recent screenplays and doesn’t make me excited to see what he does next as a director (especially when 2017 had such strong debuts like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird”). That being said it does offer a showcase for some talented actors to show off their skill and grazes the interesting topics of its true-life character. To put it in poker terms: having this cast and script at his disposal, Aaron Sorkin was teasing a full house but when the credit rolled, it turns out he was just bluffing.

Critic’s Grade: B–

STX Entertainment

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