Eight years in Hollywood, two years in New York. Movie stars, celebrity athletes–and Russian mobsters. With Molly Bloom as our guide, we gain access to an exclusive club, where the money flows freely and the rich and famous meet once a week to gamble their wealth away. It’s prime Aaron Sorkin territory, sweeping back the curtain on the garish underworld of high-stakes poker like he did for politics, television, and Silicon Valley. And for two-thirds of Molly’s Game, he delivers a smart, sleek movie that works his crisp repartee into the glitzy adrenaline of the game. But when Molly’s poker career folds, Sorkin squanders his own hand by playing the wrong cards.
Molly’s Game marks Sorkin’s first time in the director’s chair, and he’s as adept at translating his screenplay to the screen as previous collaborators from David Fincher to Danny Boyle. We are spectators at an irresistibly lurid poker game, which has been very closely based on Molly Bloom’s real-life account. At her height, she’s running the highest-stakes game in the world–but then it all comes toppling down. Sorkin seems to be answering his feminist critics by taking on Molly’s story. He’s given us a few well-written women before (C.J. on The West Wing, Joanna Hoffman in Steve Jobs), but she’s his first female protagonist.
Molly Bloom sits right in Jessica Chastain’s wheelhouse. She makes Molly into a practical and alluring leader of the game, firmly in control of the boys and the chips–until it all starts to slip away. Her strategy is to maintain her composure, calmly admonishing the men when they fall out of line, and appearing desirable without crossing any ethical or sexual boundaries. Chastain, like in her best work, gives off a steady confidence and the feeling she’s holding a vulnerable part of herself back, a part we’re not entirely supposed to see.
But then! Molly’s stern father (Kevin Costner) randomly finds her on the ice rink in the middle of Central Park, and they have a heart-to-heart. As it turns out, Molly’s rise and fall was a rebellion against her dad! It’s Sorkin’s usual pattern: every anti-hero needs a reason for their bad behavior. After all, Mark Zuckerberg was just trying to prove himself to Rooney Mara. So we watch this ludicrous scene where father and daughter talk through their past and come to an understanding. Their reunion casts a harsh moralizing light on everything that proceeded it, as if Molly needed to be put in her place. Finding a tentative resolution with her father also gives her the guts to plead guilty and accept her (mild) sentence.
Before these daddy issues resurface, Idris Elba (playing Molly’s lawyer) delivers a lacerating, awards-ready monologue with the same falsely overwritten feel. It’s like Sorkin just can’t shake the need to explain everything away. (Remember when Steve Jobs invents the iPod to fix his relationship with his daughter?) In the end, Molly’s Game entertains when the movie embraces the world of the game.* But once it’s out, we and Molly are chastised for getting too close.
*Side note: Michael Cera’s take on hot-shit Tobey Maguire (who Molly named in her book) is some of his best, sleaziest acting. And yes, it’s true, Maguire really did tell Molly Bloom in real life to bark like a seal for money.