Molly's GameReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/03/18 13:49:32
Aaron Sorkin is a guy known for using a lot of words as a writer, and watching "Molly's Game", his first film as a director, I think there are two separate reasons. He likes process and stories, and when he comes upon ones that interest him, he can't stop talking; he's fascinated. But try to get into what his characters feel, and he's roundabout, pecking at the borders until he finally gets inside. It's worked for him - it gives directors and actors a lot to work with and as much to fall back on - but that assumes good collaborators, and he's not a great partner for himself yet.Here, he's telling the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who suffered a (second) horrific injury during trials, who opted to take a year off before starting law school, landing in Los Angeles, landing a gig as the personal assistant to a scuzzy producer (Dean Keith), which includes helping him run his weekly high-stakes poker game. A quick study, she's soon able to make it her poker game with the help of a high-rolling movie star (Michael Cera), but even though she tries to keep things above board, that much money flowing through something only half-legal, it's no surprise that she's eventually the target of an FBI investigation, her assets seized and lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) wondering if she's as honest as she seems - and if she is, it's unlikely she can pay her bill.
There is certainly plenty of talent in front of the camera in this movie; Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba take those big mouthfuls Sorkin gives them and spit out smart, driven characters who have solid, decent centers without seeming plain or sanctimonious. Chastain in particular is fun to watch as the title character's flashbacks inch forward; Molly's inherent smarts become more worldly and applied, even as her wardrobe choices tend to distract from that. It's a tricky performance, a bunch of amorality and ego that's just got to be just friendly enough to push the audience away. Elba makes a nice complement to her, good at being hesitant without looking indecisive, carrying a sort of paternal attitude over from scenes with his on-screen daughter but not ever making Jaffey seem to talk down to his client. Kevin Costner leads a cast of quality work in smaller roles, his late-career snarl a fine fit for Molly's demanding father.
Those performances are in large part what keeps the film worth watching as the story's focus shifts. Sorkin seems fascinated by the first half, where Molly is learning the ropes and building her business;it's a process with nifty details, schemes, and counter-schemes, and Sorkin finds every last detail fascinating, enough so that he's very careful to make that he doesn't overwhelm or bore the audience. Later on, though, when it's all about getting inside Molly's head, he's not so assured, so he circles around it and then lunges for the center, laying out the clearest possible explanations for fear some nuance may be missed. He doesn't have the experience that the people who have previously directed his scripts and turned monologues and banter into something more visually exciting do. He's got the notion to translate characterization into motion - just watch how Molly skis or skates when given the chance, for example - but not the skills to sync it with his vocal rhythms.
There are other problems, too, which may not sit right, especially once the spell cast by his hypnotic words gets broken. Note how precisely Sorkin has a character drop the n-word at one end of the movie; he uses it as an easy way to make sure the audience finds Molly's boss loathsome, but only after the fact, using an unreliable narrator to turn it into something only half as objectionable at first and having Elba be the actual one to say it later, right before pointing out the cleverness of this technique. How Molly basically has her life and motivations mansplained to her at the other end is frustrating even before it's paired with a remarkably passive climax. Maybe it's true to life, but given that Sorkin has famously said he doesn't mind some inaccuracy if it helps to get to a greater truth, that needn't be the only priority.It doesn't really hurt the film in the moment, so maybe it's at least effective, but it certainly does let what was an energetic, entertaining movie turn from tart to sour. It may not happen while one is in the theater, or even until one is well out of the door, but it's still something that makes "Molly's Game" a bit less than it could be.
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