Molly’s Game review – a brilliant directing debut from one of Hollywood’s best screenwriters
As far as screenwriter’s becoming directors go it’s a fairly even balance of good to bad. For all the Shane Blacks, Alex Garlands, Joss Whedons there’s a few David S. Goyers, William Monaghans and Richard Curtis’. Luckily, for Aaron Sorkin, he’s firmly in the first camp. Turning his hand to directing after a career of writing some of the sharpest films and shows in Hollywood (his credits include: A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball, Steve Jobs, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Newsroom) has turned to directing with this based on a true story crime film.
Molly’s Game is the story Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former competitive skier who took time off from law school after a ski accident and turned to running high stakes poker games for some of the world’s most elite. All of which sounds ready-made for Sorkin and his mile-a-minute delivery. Molly’s explanation of how poker and the backhanded deals therein work calls to mind the early scenes of technology in The Social Network or the sport analysis of Moneyball, but even if it’s delivery of dialogue where people talk over each other, it’s clear that as “true” as this may be, we’re in Sorkin land.
From the get-go Sorkin wants to show off his new skill; sure he has awards aplenty from his time writing for the likes of Bennett Miller, David Fincher and Danny Boyle, but he wants to put in his own directorial flair and zing. He’s not as meticulous and colour coded as Fincher, not as stately as Miller, not as kinetic as Boyle, and what he attempts to do is play Bloom’s story as a sort of Goodfellas where the main anti-hero isn’t really a crook (though she sort of is), and is definitely a decent person.
The voice over is vintage Sorkin, and Jessica Chastain has never hidden from a challenge. When given roles as juicy as a mob matriarch in A Most Violent Year or as a CIA agent hunting Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty she can turn herself into a completely different person, and here playing Molly’s over a fifteen or so year period she manages to convince you of the various stages and ages Bloom is going through. Naturally, and this being Sorkin, Chastain is given some speeches to really let loose on, the name speech in particular is a shop stopper, but Chastain is such a talent when it comes to just reacting that some of her most powerful moments have zero dialogue whatsoever.
Idris Elba, as vaguely fictionalised though ‘based’ on a real person Charlie Jaffey is also brilliant. Elba manages to take a cipher character and imbue him with something approaching humanity. He’s not just a silly fake person to cover the asses of the producers, he’s a fully rounded character. In Jaffey, Elba is able to show off his full range of skills, he also gets a good couple of speeches when he delivers with intensity, he also has a flair for deadpan comedy which he shows in a courtroom scene which involves him switching seats with someone repeatedly.
Around these two central performances are a spate of good performances, but in roles that are a little more troublesome. Kevin Costner is great as Bloom’s hard-line father who appears to have actual hate for his daughter, and even though this comes to a head in a dramatically satisfying way, this being a true story it feels a little like a contrivance. There is also a problem in that the amount of name changing and composites make the film either too hard to believe, or you spend your time trying to work out who these people are. For example, Michael Cera’s role as Player X is an apparent composite of Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Ben Affleck – among others, but you spend your time trying to figure out if that’s Leo talking or Maguire or Affleck, which becomes a distraction when important information is being given. Chris O’Dowd is also an issue, though not awful his nonspecific accent and drunk chatter make him appear to be on audition for Shane Mcgowan of the Pogues.
Even so, the comparison’s to Goodfellas is inevitable. It’s a crime film, with an unapologetic wise-ass narrating the whole film, and by the end, she doesn’t entirely learn her lesson. The key difference her is, despite rooting for Henry Hill in Goodfellas, by the end you’re sick of him. Molly is a much more sympathetic character, someone who we come to like for her integrity, not wanting to hand over hard drives so lives aren’t ruined, willing to fall on her sword to protect people she cares about, doing herself years of psychological damage to maintain a stable home.
In fact, and to an absurd comic effect this is exemplified when Jaffey, reading Molly’s book, asks why she changed a quote from someone. The scene doesn’t seem to have importance until later on, but Jaffey knows who Bloom’s boss is, and asks why she changed his use of “Nigger bagels” to the less offensive “poor person bagels”, Molly says it doesn’t matter but it does.
This might be the root of Molly’s Game’s genius, much like Poker it’s all a bluff. Sorkin isn’t really interesting in telling a sort of poker-related Boogie Nights or the Wolf of Hustler Street, he wants to tell a story of a woman who wouldn’t back down. When men objectified her, she used it to gain an advantage, when men sidelined her, she made a better business, when she was threatened, she stood up, and when she was physically attacked she took it with a stoic calm that only strengthened her resolve. In this respect, Molly’s Game might have a lead character comparable to Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs, but actually, the real comparison is CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) in the West Wing, and her stern drive that wows everyone.
Flawed as it may be, and sometimes a little too flash for it’s own good, Molly’s Game is a brilliant directing debut from one of Hollywood’s best screenwriters and gives it’s two stars a chance to really show what they’re made of. Come Oscar night it’s got the goods and isn’t bluffing.