So, let’s start 2018 off shall we? And what better way to start off 2018 in film, considering the dominant story in film news today, than one headlined by a woman? Jessica Chastain is an actress I have never really been bowled over with in the few films I have seen her in, finding her outright laughable in Zero Dark Thirty and mostly pedestrian in the likes of Interstellar or The Martian. But I’m very much on the fringe of opinion there, and someone of her critically acclaimed talents seems perfect for this, an adaptation of the story of Hollywood poker honcho Molly Bloom. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I was as much or more interested in Molly’s Game as Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut than anything else. But could the master of whipsmart dialogue and Jessica Chastain craft something worth watching?
Facing prison time for her apparent misdeeds, Molly Bloom (Chastain) outlines her story to lawyer Charlie Jaffet (Idris Elba): the tale goes over the untimely end of her skiing career; how she got into the world of underground poker nights for Hollywood’s rich and famous; her relationship with the enigmatic and manipulative “Player X” (Michael Cera); how she got rich beyond her wildest dreams; and how she got tied up with the Russian mob, with her life and liberty in danger.
The good here is clear enough. It’s interesting story, of a woman who managed to gain a larger amount of money, fame and power in a world typically dominated by men. For the first 90 or so minutes, it’s well paced. The “Start at the end” type set-up might seem a bit tired at first glance, but it works well enough as a framing device, contrasted nicely with Bloom’s beginnings on the ski slopes. And while the film doesn’t really keep you guessing about how things will turn out, it does manage to create some sense of tension at certain moments.
But it isn’t especially clear what the primary point of Sorkin’s debut is. On the face of it, it is a psychological study of a woman getting ahead in a world dominated by men, by puting herself in a quasi-cloaked position of having dominance over them, but it’s also more than that. It’s the story of random chances changing lives; of reaching the top and not realising till its too late that you’re actually in too deep; and of a desperately damaged person seeking a catharsis for childhood trauma through illicit means. Molly’s Game is ambitious and does its very best to keep all these plates spinning as best it can, and no better screenwriter to do it, but neither Sorkin nor Chastain can prevent the film from seeming like an exercise in reaching for too much, too fast.
It is the feminine power angle that probably takes up the majority of Molly’s Game’s running time. Chastain is routinely depicted as being under the heel of men in the first act, be it her over-pressuring father (Kevin Costner) (he tells her tiredness is just another word for weakness), her douchebag LA boss (Jeremy Strong) (who doesn’t like “poor-people bagels”, later revealed to be a cover for a racial slur) or her somewhat judgemental lawyer in the present day (he can’t decide whether she’s history’s greatest monster or a saint in disguise). The film then showcases Bloom rising to control her environment: taking command of “the game”, using it to leech money out of the pockets of men too stupid to realise what’s going on or happy to be led for their own reasons, and hiring lots of women to surround herself with in the process.
But it’s an empty thing really, as the film makes clear from very early on that its all just Molly trying to get back and her dad and her (somewhat) crappy childhood, and Sorkin goes way too far in making this abundantly obvious in the last act, wherein Costner is given some juicy and rather unrealistic monologues to enunciate the point (telling Bloom at one point “I’m going to give you three years of therapy in three minutes”). I guess I felt a little let-down by that: this had the appearance of being something akin to The Godfather (OK, maybe not on that level) in terms of being a rise to the top of a crime organisation story, only with the twist of having a woman in the lead. And it is that kind of story sometimes, and how Bloom deals with the opportunities and the setbacks that are in front of her are easily the best parts. For it all to be wrapped up in this pseudo-psychological expose is trite and unworthy of the character the film revolves around.
And the fault for that doesn’t fall on Chastain, who’s at the best level I have ever seen her at here. There’s still a certain woodenness to her sometimes that I find quite distracting, but for the most part she does a justifiably praise-worthy job as Bloom, from her origins as an under-pressure competitive skier, to the drugged out car crash of a human being she becomes towards the end of the story. You get a sense for the kind of hunger for success and subsequent aimlessness once it has been achieved that really does kind of define who Bloom is.
Around her, the supporting cast does their best, but this is Jessica Chastain show, with numerous other characters entering and falling out of the story at will. Elba is reserved enough, perhaps not totally comfortable as the supporting player. Costner seems like a bit of stunt casting, not really in the film enough. Strong is fun as the asshole boss, and Chris O’Dowd has a scene-stealing turn as a drunken Irish gambler who takes his relationship with Bloom a bit too Fr. Cera is the best of the others, as “Player X”, curiously left anonymous here, though Bloom’s actual book happily identified him as Tobey Maguire, a sort of Machiavellian sociopath, who gets genuine pleasure from watching other men at the table crash and burn, later taking that further to include Bloom herself.
Some of those scenes make for uncomfortable viewing, and this belies one of the films other faults, which is that Bloom herself is generally made to look like a paragon. Sure, a paragon that’s bruised, a little dusty, not all that sparkling, but a paragon nonetheless, with Molly’s Game at pains to point out that Bloom did not countenance using rough tactics to get money owed to her, that she made efforts to combat gambling addiction among her main players, that she was generous to all of her employees. A late monologue from one character, flattering Bloom to high heaven, reeks of the worst kind of Sorkin praisery.
I say that because it doesn’t all fit. Bloom did gain her fortune and fame at the expense of those with gambling addictions. She did facilitate some not so nice people in money laundering, unknowingly, but ignorance is no excuse. She did break the law, repeatedly. Molly’s Game, which even nodes towards its title character being reluctant to sell the movie rights to her story, seems more like a somewhat edgy puff piece than a balanced biopic. That the film then attempts to paint Bloom’s rise as an example of random chance and chaos theory seems strange to me: a beautification and excuse making in one.
Sorkin’s visual direction is nothing to write home about. His depiction of the poker games is mostly carrying forward the work of previous directors, and even then in a mostly blasé style: you never really get a feel for the tension of the table, as Molly will to tell you exactly what’s going and exactly what’s going to happen (though, in sometimes very obscure poker-centric language). It will easily bring to mind the likes of The Big Short and The Wolf Of Wall Street in its attempt to visually depict the out of control largesse of the rich and famous, but this meshes poorly with the condemning tone. Sorkin has scripted for a lot of great directors in the past, and one feels he should collaborate more in the future.
His script is what you would expect, lots of rapid fire repartee and quasi and full-on monologues, and Molly Bloom is written quite well. But much of it is, like the direction, lacking, in punch, in believability and in the kind of character-rich evolution that so marked Sorkin’s time on The West Wing. I suppose that much of it comes down to connection and actually caring about the people on display. And I just sort of didn’t. For others, well, Sorkin’s style is an acquired taste, as likely to grate as it is enthral. There are good scenes here – one, wherein a professional poker player falls into a gambling vortex after one random bad hand, is very affecting – but they are almost episodic in the way they are dotted around the narrative, and they dry up very fast by the time we hit the poorly put-together third act.
I mean, it’s OK. It’s not going to light the world on fire, and neither the director, it’s lead, or its main supporting players are going to be remembered for this. It’s s starter for Sorkin, and killing time for Chastain and Elba. That might sound harsh, but it doesn’t make it a waste of time either. While there are uncomfortable aspects of the production in terms of how it approaches Bloom’s moral compass, it’s still an interesting story. You just wish it was told a bit more memorably.
(All images are copyright of STXfilms).