“Molly’s Game” (2017)
Running Time: 140 minutes
Written & Directed by: Aaron Sorkin
Featuring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Brian d’Arcy James, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Graham Greene, Claire Rankin, Joe Keery, and Jeremy Strong
Molly Bloom: “I’ll be hosting a game in this suite every Tuesday night. The first buy-in, two hundred and fifty thousand.”
Disappointment is the word that comes to mind after watching Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, “Molly’s Game” (2017) a film that is so unsure of itself and what it wants to be that the writer/director seems to have included just about every kind of plot device possible to make a coherent movie, none of which really come together, making this something that reflects everything that is wrong with Sorkin’s writing. That is the way in which characters communicate between themselves, as well explaining the plot to an audience, just a word of advice Mr. Sorkin, film is a visual medium, if I wanted almost two and a half hours of people talking I would listen to a podcast or audiobook, both would be more original and entertaining than this movie based on the memoir ‘Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker’ by Molly Bloom.
There is no doubt that Aaron Sorkin, at his best, can deliver a great television show like “The West Wing” (1999-2006) or an equally compelling film like “The Social Network” (2010), high minded liberal projects that not only attract great actors but are helmed by even greater producers and directors. Of course when Sorkin himself has control we get “Studio 60 on Sunset Strip” (2006-2007) and “Steve Jobs” (2015) two disappointing projects that both fell in love with dialogue over visuals as well as coolness over substance. Even though they had other directors these two pieces were utter disappointments, which suffer from similar issues to “Molly’s Game”.
This is the true story of Molly Bloom, a young woman who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game in Los Angeles and New York City, for nearly a decade, before being arrested by the FBI. Her players included Hollywood celebrities, athletes, business titans and the Russian mob. With the help of her lawyer, Molly must face federal charges.
I have no doubt that when actors are offered or are aware that an Aaron Sorkin script is in the offering there must be a queue a mile long, after all if there is even a chance to appear in something that could be a ‘West Wing’ or ‘Social Network’ then you must grab it. That explains how the two leads; Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are able to come aboard, as well as supporting actors Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Chris O’Dowd and Graham Greene are cast. Chastain plays the title character of Molly as a vampish raccoon eyed femme fatale who seems to be smarter than everyone, except for the male lead of course, Idris Elba as her lawyer that acts as an audience substitute, who is explained to what is going on in the plot, with a narrative that is so full of flashbacks you will be forgiven for leaving the cinema with a case of whiplash. Both Chastain and Elba have suffered from the same fate in recent years, after bursting onto the scene with some memorable roles they have either had the leads in fairly ordinary as well as forgettable films, or, had flashy supporting roles in good films, but been relegated while the leads get all the glory. With “Molly’s Game” they are playing frankly unbelievable people who every time they want to make a point have to point out some arbitrary metaphor then meander to the point, supplying voiceover to action that is described then acted out – it is frankly a waste of their talents to ask them to perform these roles in a movie that begs to be directed by someone who knows the craft. The same can be said of the supporting actors who to have to act like characters out of a rat pack film, all too cool and knowing to be treated as real people.
That brings me to the script as well as the way the film has been structured, edited and shot. This should have been a slam-dunk of a film to direct but somehow Sorkin takes what is on the surface an interesting real life story turning it into a never-ending mess of constant set up, with very little pay off. In fact I struggled to see what the film was attempting to say but was just happy it ended after its marathon like running time. Not only does the main character constantly explain almost every flashback scene in voice over, but then the exact thing she talked about is acted out so we have many aspects of the movie done twice. As if that were not bad enough within each scene everything is painstakingly explained literally as well as in metaphor. Another aspect of the film is the meandering nature of it as well as the multiple sub plots that go nowhere as well as being reexamined at many points throughout the narrative, which lends to the running time of this quasi drama that wishes it were in fact a thriller – which it is not. There is a distinct lack of editorial decision making, firstly in the script, which I shudder to think how long that was, then in the actual edit room where I also do not want to think how long the possible first cut was. At times I found myself asking why certain scenes were present when they obviously should have been cut to streamline the movie into something that is actually compelling.
While this film is about Molly as a character as well as some kind of cautionary tale, one of the key problems is that there is often talk about the rich and famous but there are no real revelations about who these people were. Not only that there is too much time explaining (literally once again) why these names are not being mentioned which leads to a meta narrative that unfortunately does not work within the confines of this film. I can see it working in a book, but here it just falls victim to the narrative as a pointless endeavor.
Molly’s Game should have been a very good movie, with performances that could have captured the imagination; instead they are rote as well as staid and boring. When you have Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba the screen should be crackling and the audience transfixed to what is happening, not wondering when will this movie end. Not only that but for a film about poker it may have added to the narrative if Molly actually played the game. There is a section in the movie where the obviousness of her lack of agency exists where the players just decide to play somewhere different thereby negating any power she has. What is interesting about that is that audiences can do the same thing to Sorkin, that is leave and go to a better well thought out and visual film.