Editor Chloe Woods reviews Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-hopeful directorial debut.
Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) is driven, ambitious, and smarter than every man in the room. Bringing Bloom’s own 2014 memoir to the big screen in a feature both written and – for the first time – directed by The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game is a fast-paced, fast-talking film spanning Molly’s rise and fall as host of two of this century’s most infamous poker tables. Smart as she might be, the cards are ultimately stacked against her, and what began as a game will end up somewhere far more serious.
It’s about poker, but also it’s not about poker, so don’t expect to learn much about the game itself. In-depth explanations of particular hands, provided once or twice, will fly past unless you already understand them. What matters here is the culture of poker-playing among two distinct sets of the American elite, and the associated legal implications: poker itself may be above-board (and Molly makes a determined effort to keep her games clean, or at least ensure plausible deniability) but the other entertainments of the very rich are often not. The film leans into the odd seediness of gambling; even when hosted in classy rooms and breaking not a single by-law, there’s a petty crassness in the competition over money, the politics of invites, and the hapless glee with which a good number of players throw themselves onto the whims of the table’s masters. Molly draws a distinction between poker players and gamblers – almost all those at her games are the latter, including (though she does have enough other concerns to make “good decisions” for a while) Molly herself.
Opening – appropriately enough – with a narrative bluff, the film launches at breakneck speed and (though it drops a notch after the first few minutes) carries that energy for the remainder of its run-time. In the present day, Molly meets with lawyer Charlie (Idris Elba) shortly before her trial and, lacking the funds to pay for counsel, throws herself on his mercy. These conversations (confusingly set after the release of the book the film is based on, and referring to it) intercut and provide a framing device for the retelling of earlier events. By Chastain’s breathless narration we learn that Molly Bloom, after an accident put her out of the professional skiing she’d expected to be her life, worked as an office clerk and cocktail waitress before (and leading to) the eight years of running a high-stakes poker game in LA. When she was ousted from that, she pulled off an incredible ploy to launch a bigger game in New York: it was this game, hosted in a thousands-a-night hotel room, that brought Molly spiralling into drug addiction and entanglements with the Russian mob. Then she wrote a book about it. It’s a point of note that she refused to name anyone in the book not already revealed: considering her involvement in illegal high-stakes poker games and a somewhat self-absorbed tack towards life, Molly comes across as a basically decent human being.
A good part of the credit for that goes to Chastain, of course: this isn’t a performance to go down in history as one of her best, but it’s solid. The chatterbox Molly of the present day contrasts vividly against her younger self, alternately demure, terse, and thoughtful: she is careful with her words, and also clearly has no time for idiots. She spends much of her time talking down to men who think they’re talking down to her: Charlie, though not quite an idiot, gets open condescension instead, which he takes on the chin. This unfortunately gets rendered down into a whole psychotherapy thing surrounding Molly’s dislike and distrust of other humans – specifically men – culminating in a left-field appearance by her psychiatrist father (Kevin Costner). The paternalistic lecture he offers to his grown daughter about her own psyche might have been less galling if we’d seen more of Molly’s interactions with other women: her mother is often mentioned but rarely on-screen, and her female co-conspirators in New York are sidelined for the sake of presenting Molly as isolated in an aggressively male world.
About half the film is, functionally, “Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain stand and talk in a room”, which succeeds most of the time on the strength of script and cast (not that we’d mark these two down as having any particular chemistry together) despite some unfortunate directing choices. Never mind contrasting the two Mollys: the starkest contrast of this film is the one between the script produced by experienced, self-aware writer Aaron Sorkin and the film-making led by amateur director Aaron Sorkin. Fortunately he tends to stick to the tried-and-tested, but it’s easy to tell when he’s aiming for something more interesting, because those are the bits that don’t work.
They are relatively few. Peppered by moments of humour which allow the leads to show off their comic timing, and laced with light commentary on the nature of wealth and corruption in America (so taken for granted, and exploited by the film’s lead, it becomes easy to overlook its broader implications), Molly’s Game is far from groundbreaking: but it does, for the most part, work. And though this review is three weeks late and the film has been in cinemas since the start of the month, there are worse things to go and see.
Molly’s Game is out now in UK cinemas. Watch the trailer below.