When at his best, Aaron Sorkin is a master speechwriter. He can deliver to actors and actresses the most compelling words that somehow feel tailor-made for that particular actor/actress to deliver as the character in question. They are exhilarating to watch, causing goose pimples to rise on one’s arms, and this is true whether the speech is about everything or nothing. With “Molly’s Game,” the question becomes not just whether Sorkin delivers on the page but whether, in his first time in the director’s chair, he manages to put together a movie that is compelling from start to finish.
To get the last out of the way first, by and large Sorkin has indeed succeeded. Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are fantastic – not just wonderfully delivering on Sorkin’s speechifying and dialogue, but shaping charismatic individuals one wants to watch. There may be a few bits where the whole thing could be tightened, or where threads are dropped, but it is a stirring, powerful, film.
Chastain is Molly Bloom, and as the introduction she offers up via voiceover (along with accompanying visuals) indicates, she was nearly an Olympic-skier. In fact, if not for a stroke of bad luck, she would have been an Olympic skier and quite possibly would have medaled at the Games. Instead, she started making a serious amount of money by running poker games. And, as the audience quickly learns, this got her into trouble with people both nominally good (like the FBI) and bad (like the Russian mob). The movie tells much of this in flashback, with the present comprised of Bloom fighting off the criminal charges against her.
Sorkin’s screenplay is based on the book written by the actual Molly Bloom, but not having read the source material I wouldn’t venture a guess into how much of what appears on screen actually took place (and even if I had read the book, that wouldn’t confirm the veracity of the incidents, just the source). What is clear though is that Chastain’s Bloom is not just smart, but rather truly brilliant, and more than that, has a strong moral code. Bloom does the right thing because it is the right thing to do. It is an admirable quality which the world attempts to exploit.
Bloom’s moral certitude is something we have seen from other of Sorkin’s heroes, but when it’s done well, it doesn’t get old. Bloom exhibits the sort of strength we would all like to have – the strength to do the right thing no matter the consequences, to stand up for not just what she believes, but to be believing the right thing as well.
She is matched in this arena by Elba’s Charlie Jaffey, Bloom’s reluctant lawyer. Reluctant though he may be, once he signs on, he is a lawyer who will do everything in his power to get her the best result he possibly can, but only through honorable means.
Such a pair could easily lead to some horrifically moralistic, patronizing speeches (critics of Sorkin would suggest that he has a tendency in that direction). This does not occur in “Molly’s Game.”
There is, however, a sense of disappointment that despite her being a strong character, Molly is helped out of trouble too often by men. In fact, whether it’s her lawyer or her father (Kevin Costner) or a judge (Graham Greene) or her boss (Jeremy Strong) or poker players who help her out (Michael Cera, Chris O’Dowd). As the film elucidates, much of who Bloom becomes is because of her relationship with her father. While a polite description of that would be “strained,” it is undeniably Larry Bloom’s strict attitude as a father that causes Molly to push herself forward, even when she shouldn’t.
It, of course, may be factually accurate that Bloom was helped in this regard by men more than by women, but watching it all unfold still gives one pause, and do so chiefly because she is clear so smart and capable.
Watching Chastain’s Bloom learn poker and start a game and recruit players is a joy. Watching her spar with the other characters, particularly, Jaffey is tremendous. These are fun, energetic, moments in a film which could easily get bogged down in laws or poker etiquette or any number of things. That doesn’t happen and it doesn’t happen because Bloom is great at what she does, understanding not just poker, but the world (and when she doesn’t know something, she teaches herself about it).
What Sorkin has delivered to audiences is an empathetic look at a truly admirable character. One leaves the theater feeling as though our lives would all be better off if we knew Bloom or had the same intellectual and moral wherewithal she exhibits. And, it does this without winding up overly preachy or dragging itself out for too long (despite being two hours and 20 minutes long). It may not be Sorkin’s best work as a writer, but it is a solid directorial debut.
photo credit: STX Entertainment