One of the first rules of screenwriting is that you should consistently move the narrative forward through action rather than dialogue. It’s believed that if a film gets too “wordy” it can lose the interest of the audience and your story begins to fall flat. Apparently, the exception to this rule is anything written by Aaron Sorkin. This is a writer that has turned dialogue into action that could rival almost any high-octane sequence of visual eye candy. From A Few Good Men to The Social Network, it could be argued that he’s the best screenwriter of our time. He manages to turn his words into a poetry of the best kind and his style is so distinct that his signature is instantly applied to any script he touches.
Sorkin achieves this feat again in spades with Molly’s Game, which also serves as his directorial debut. Don’t let the double duty work here fool you. He’s not thrown off by the multi-tasking. This is a highly capable directorial launch for the talented screenwriter and it represents probably some of the best writing of 2017 (Molly’s Game made its theatrical debut just as we said goodbye to last year). In true Sorkin style, the movie is all about the nonstop dialogue, which pours out at a mile-a-minute but, as a result of the way the words flow (not to mention the skill with which they are delivered), they function in a way that builds momentum.
I have to say that I only had a passing knowledge of the true life story from which this story is derived. The film is based on the memoir of the same name by “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom. This is a girl whose story would seem like a pure work of fiction but it indeed happened to her and as a result, it allowed her to break into the pop culture consciousness while also making her a bit of a cautionary tale for those who get caught up in the world of excess. Molly (played mostly by Jessica Chastain, although Samantha Isler takes over for her as a teenager) was once a talented skier with Olympic aspirations. Driven by her perfectionist father, Larry (Kevin Costner), she seems destined for greatness until a freak accident brings her athletic career to an end. Following the abrupt end of her athletic career, rather than throwing herself into law school, she takes some time off “to be young in someplace warm.” That “someplace” is Los Angeles where, through a series of coincidences, she ends up running high stakes poker games for big spenders – actors, moguls, and sports stars. For many years, Molly is able to operate unobstructed until her ambitions don’t match those of “Player X” (Michael Cera), a client who wants preferential treatment, and finds herself forced to relocate to New York. There, she rebuilds her empire but, instead of catering to stars, she rubs elbows with anyone who has a lot of money. That attracts the attention of the Russian mob, the American mob, and the FBI. By the time Molly realizes her peril, she’s so deep into drug addiction that she has lost her focus and the results are brutal, to say the least.
There is a second timeline that also flows through the narrative. As we see how Molly built her empire, we see her trying to fight the federal charges that have been leveled against her after years of her running her games. Broke and facing indictment and possible prison time, she approaches attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) for representation. Although initially reluctant to become involved with someone with such a “colorful” reputation, he is able to look behind the tabloid headlines and discover that, although Molly can’t pay his retainer, she is deserving of his services. She tells him her story and he agrees to help her although she proves to be one of those clients who rarely take her lawyer’s advice. Their push and pull as attorney and client end up being a growing experience for both parties as they work to clear Molly’s name.
I have often been accused of “complaining” when films run too long. Let it be known that I don’t mind a long movie but it has to keep me consistently engaged. Once a film meanders, I begin to lose interest but here we have an example of a lengthy film that doesn’t feel any bit of its 140-minute runtime. The energy is so relentless that you instantly get caught up in the narrative and this is 95% due to the written words of Aaron Sorkin and the performers blessed enough to deliver his words. The other 5% is due to the little directorial flourishes that Sorkin has employed to also move his story forward. You can tell that he has been inspired by the directors who have taken the helm over some of his screenplays (David Fincher and Danny Boyle to name a few) and he utilizes some cool visual tools to keep you invested. For those with only a passing knowledge of poker, Sorkin uses a few visuals as an almost tutorial to keep you up to speed as the movie moves along. The on-screen markers mostly deal with how hands are won and lost in various poker games and while these visuals might be too on the nose for some, it simply compliments the action of his words and never distracts from them.
Jessica Chastain proves once again here that she is one of the best actresses of her generation. The actress gets several Sorkin-scripted monologues and delivers them with the passion and tenacity and she proves to be an excellent match to Sorkin’s script. This is a role that could’ve easily been vapid and superficial if played the wrong way but Chastain showcases Bloom’s strength and vulnerability. This is a character with heart and a surprising amount of integrity and while I don’t know for sure if Bloom is truly like this in real life, the movie and Chastain’s performance makes a strong case that this is coming from a real place.
The supporting players are also top notch. Idris Elba mostly slummed it in 2017 with capable but by the numbers performances in The Dark Tower and The Mountain Between Us but he proves here that when given the right script, he’s one of the best actors working today. This is Chastain’s show but Elba also proves capable of handling Sorkin’s words and he gets a few moments to take the spotlight as well. He gets a speech about why the prosecutors should “do the right thing” in regards to Molly’s case late in the film that gave me goosebumps as it drew to its conclusion. Another noteworthy supporting turn is from Kevin Costner as Molly’s father. In only a few scenes, he shows us how Molly would become involved in high stakes games where she’s truly the power player over the men. He’s a tyrant and hard on his daughter but it’s a parenting technique that shapes Molly’s strength. We see the negative side of his relationship with her but also the true amount of love he has for his daughter as well. One moment you want to hate the guy but by the end, you’re hoping for an inevitable reconciliation between them. I think Costner has become a better actor in recent years because he has let go of being a leading man and simply takes on roles that challenge him. This is another fine example of that career trajectory.
On the surface, Molly’s Game might seem to be just about poker, but that’s really just the glitzy backdrop against which the action occurs. It’s also a way to contrast the lifestyle and culture of “glamorous” Los Angeles with “gritty” New York. The movie is more about various addictions of all sorts: gambling, drugs, and (as Larry explains it) having power over powerful men. Sex rarely comes into things because there’s neither time nor space in Molly’s life for her to exercise her libido. She’s too busy popping pills, downing them with booze, and lording it over her clients. The players, for their part, are too focused on losing six-figure pots to care about how much cleavage their hostess is (or isn’t) showing them, although a couple of them make some kind of advances. Unless this was left out of her story, I was surprised by how mostly respectful the men were of the women, particularly once Molly began running her own game rather than simply being a hostess. This is a position where she clearly had the power and had she not lost her focus due to her various addictions, no man could’ve ever taken that away from her.
Molly’s Game is coming out during a cultural climate ripe for a character like this. Molly is strong and self-sufficient. Driven by her addiction to “having power over powerful men,” she forges her own empire and, when it crumbles, she refuses to sell her principles for better treatment or a more favorable plea bargain (another noble representation of the character that actually surprised me). She’s the perfect antidote in this post-Weinstein Hollywood that we’re living in now. She’s the response to ego-fueled male entitlement that has led to a growing disparity between males and females in the industry. Sorkin can’t see the future and didn’t know what loomed ahead when he was making Molly’s Game but the timing couldn’t have been better for this movie’s release.