Molly’s Game, the feature directorial debut of Academy Award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin makes a compelling case for his previous practice of turning his material over to others to shepherd it to the screen. More than most, Sorkin had the benefit of working for and with strong directors: Rob Reiner (back when he was at the top of his game), Mike Nichols, David Fincher, Bennett Miller, and Danny Boyle. This isn’t a list of infallible creators, but they all clearly know their way around a narrative. They know where to prune, where to smooth, where to enhance. Sorkin, engaging as his writing can be, knows how to pile in words upon words upon words. He adheres rigidly to his established model, which makes his film engaging and frustrating in roughly equal measure.
Based on the memoir by Molly Bloom, the film traces the trajectory of the title character (Jessica Chastain) as she careens from a promising career as a young athlete — thwarted by a freak accident — to an early adulthood of restless indecision, ultimately turned around by her unlikely ascendancy as an impresario of underground, high stakes poker games. In this capacity, Molly mingles with the obscenely overcompensated elite — practically all of them men, most of them carrying within them an exhausting toxicity — believing herself to be insulated from the abundant dangers inherently found among illicit gamblers, a misconception fully and finally exposed when federal authorities come calling with weaponry and handcuffs.
This prime territory for Sorkin: competition and barbed banter, the intricacies of a legal system ill-equipped to deal with the pretzeling ingenuity of darker human nature, and class struggle as verbal jabs between moneyed assholes and slightly-less-moneyed noble underdogs. And it’s difficult to deny that at least some of the storytelling possesses the headlong zing that can make his involvement in a project an automatic enticement. He also piles in information, ladening Molly’s voiceover narration with so much dense exposition that the film occasionally resembles an audio book with a few scattershot images attached. Sorkin’s solution is to make the images as hyperkinetic as his dialogue, a technique likely intended to add of jolt of energy that instead has a numbing effect.
Although Sorkin routinely gets in his own way, there’s a reason actors often rejoice at the chance to speak his words, and Chastain is a dream in the lead role. She is one of those rare performers who emanates strength and vulnerability simultaneously, and, as it turns out, she has a special aplomb — as the stalwarts of The West Wing cast once did — for making Sorkin’s viciously intelligent sarcasm sound natural. As Molly’s attorney, Idris Elba is a little less convincing, but when he and Chastain share the screen the intermingling charisma is thick and luscious as cake batter.
It’s a common and understandable trajectory for a film writer to parlay their earned clout into the opportunity to direct, usually in hopes of preserving the vision they tapped out on the page. I’d wager, though, that Sorkin is not someone who’s typically had to endure other filmmakers running roughshod over his work. Instead, he’s clearly benefited from collaborating with those who occasionally offer a challenge, saying with clarity and conviction that something can be better. In Molly’s Game, it seems Sorkin is out there on his own. Too often, he appears stranded.