The Poker Princess who gained the attention of the rich and famous as well as the crime lords of New York has quite a life story to tell, and Aaron Sorkin was the right person to adapt it into a script. Known for his previous writing that gained him a whole lot of buzz and an Oscar, he takes a plunge into directing with Molly’s Game which benefits from a great cast and forceful writing but forgets about a few elements that could make this film fully resonate.
It’s the first time Aaron Sorkin got an opportunity to direct his own film, although we know him as a skilled scriptwriter – he’s written A Few Good Men, as well as biopics The Social Network and Steve Jobs. That’s why it’s not very surprising that he tries to reprise previous success with the fascinating story of Molly Bloom, a celebrity poker princess who ran the games for high-profile businessmen and Hollywood superstars. And he does this in his own style: swift words paired with a rapid event progression will keep you entertained. The director wants you to feel that the stakes are high and succeeds: it’s impossible to deny this movie its infectious energy.
This high-powered story, based on Molly Bloom’s memoir, kicks off with a surprise: once a talented skier, Molly Bloom is forced to withdraw as her health complications intensify after an accident on the slope. Having moved to the West Coast, she proves that she can think on her feet as a waitress of an exclusive nightclub in Hollywood. One of the regulars notices her quick wits and people skills, offering her an office job that comes with a double identity. A personal assistant by day and a game runner by night, she mingles with the rich and famous; soon, the contacts she makes allow her to start her own venture. However, her high-stake games and reputation in gambling circles gain her not only the rich players but also the attention of the Russian mob.
The quick and witty dialogue comes to life thanks to the cast. Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom is an epitome of magnetism, confidence and wits, reminding us of her excellent performance in Miss Sloane. She never lets the story fizzle out and rely solely on the words, keeping her heroine in check, and making even her toughest and seemingly most inexplicable of choices sound legitimate. Delivering punchy Sorkin-esque lines, she takes over the scene when she utters just a couple of words, providing a terrific pairing for the script that begs for a charismatic execution to make the character human.
Her on-screen partner Idris Elba is also delightful. As Molly’s attorney and voice of reason, he creates a tour-de-force performance by utilising the script to the maximum. His Charlie is an outstanding partner for the leading lady, letting the characterisation of the heroine shine but making his delivery piercing and resounding. Alongside them, Michael Cera appears as Spiderman Player X, embodying charm and cruelty so effortlessly that it makes you clench your fists. And Kevin Costner shows up as Molly’s father in a “therapy session”, taking the blame for the past and putting the present in the context, doing this convincingly, too.
Essentially, Sorkin manages to capture the group she’s a part of revealing its mechanics through the dialogue and storyline, which only underlines his talent for writing sharply and succinctly. The protagonist, tangled in the world of male games, brands herself as an “anti-wife” to thrive. She easily conforms to that fantasy but uses it for her own gain, and in the hands of a performer as skilled as Chastain, it’s clear how it should be interpreted. She always finds her way out of her troubles, always a step ahead proving that running the game is as much a game of skill as the sport itself. She’s taking action without waiting for things to happen to her – at least for as long as she’s at the poker table. Surprisingly, it’s a little less prominent towards the end, when the support from the men becomes somewhat of a crutch, with unlikely characters getting startling second chances.
It’s also clear that the writer relies on heavy dialogue more than on visual storytelling, so you can’t help feeling that you’re watching a theatre play at times. The storyline is written up brilliantly, but there’s little space here to recreate the feelings without a word; if they do appear, they don’t last more than a couple of seconds. They’d also help to regulate the pace – instead, the film puts the pedal to the metal and speeds off, forcing us to process all the events rapidly, sometimes with the support of a whole lot of interjections. The director forces us to throw in the word meanings or poker rules every fifteen minutes or so, and these elements wouldn’t be missed at all if they were to be abandoned or simplified.
Bringing brilliant dialogue and solid storyline to the table, Sorkin gains a directing entry on his resume which confirms his terrific writing skills. He is, however, still a budding director, and there are things that could up his game a little beyond his love of words. Ultimately, the film’s redeeming factors are the script and cast – they make this film good enough, but a change in a few factors would make it excellent.
Molly’s Game opens in the UK on the 1st of January 2018.
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