Aaron Sorkin has a remarkable knack for making complex topics seem accessible to audiences; whether it’s the politics of The West Wing, the coding language of The Social Network, or now the high-stakes poker of Molly’s Game. From the opening scene the viewer is bombarded with numbers, statistics, and facts rapidly delivered via Molly’s narration as she breaks down the freak accident that ruined her chance to ski at the winter Olympics, but all done so in a way that makes it both bitterly funny and easy to understand. As is often the case with Sorkin’s screenplays the amount of information being delivered at once can be overwhelming, but the story behind the arrest and investigation into Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) and her underground poker games involves so many overlapping details and characters that it takes a writer like Sorkin to do it justice.
Molly’s Game follows a similar structure to Sorkin’s prior screenplay for The Social Network, alternating between Molly’s meetings with her lawyer Charles Jaffey (Idris Elba) as he attempts to understand her true motives, and flashbacks detailing the evolution of the poker games she runs. These games move from LA to New York and include movie stars, athletes, bankers, and members of the Russian Mob amongst their players. Over all of it looms Molly, maintaining control and earning thousands of dollars worth of tips each night as she keeps her games popular and (mostly) legal. Chastain is present within nearly every scene of the picture, and those that she’s not in contain her narration, and she flawlessly pulls off everything Sorkin throws at her. Her performance varies between charming, determined, vulnerable, confident, and sardonic, on top of reading out Sorkin’s notoriously difficult dialogue as she explains topics as varied as the rules of poker, legal jargon, skiing, and the backstories of many of her players. She’s matched by Elba, who’s struggled to lock down a good role lately with flops like Dark Tower and The Mountain Between Us but is yet again able to display his natural charisma and sense of cool professional intelligence. The scenes between them best showcase the typically quippy back-and-forth banter Sorkin is famous for, even if at times Elba seems to be struggling to make it sound as natural as Chastain does.
This is Sorkin’s first foray into directing, and while he’s clearly studied from the master directors he’s worked with before (including David Fincher and Danny Boyle) I got the sense that he’s definitely more comfortable with the dialogue sequences. Moments that relied more on action tended to be weaker, with Molly joyously skating on an ice rink towards the end feeling like something out of a Disney channel original rather than the dark and complex drama/thriller I’d been watching. The whole film starts to feel a touch too sentimental in the third act, with both Elba’s character and Molly’s estranged father (Kevin Costner) having moments where they spout her virtues and praises. I don’t know anything about the real Molly Bloom beyond what is presented in Molly’s Game, but while The Social Network may have exaggerated Mark Zuckerberg’s worst qualities this film presents an unfalteringly positive depiction of its protagonist. That’s not to say Chastain doesn’t make her believable, but when every other character is as despicable as the sort that Bloom deals with in her games I found myself siding with Jaffey when recommends selling them out to the police to protect herself. Her ultimate explanation as to why she doesn’t is so thin that Sorkin immediately has to follow it up with a joke in the hopes that we don’t question it any further.
I wouldn’t have expected a film about poker and event management to be as exciting as this is, but Molly’s Game does pull it off. On-screen diagrams and Chastain’s narration ensures that those of us who know nothing about the game can still follow along, and even if I did get occasionally lost in the more specific details I was kept constantly engaged by both Chastain’s powerhouse performance and the quality of Sorkin’s dialogue. I’ll be interested to see what dry topic Sorkin is able to weave a screenplay out of next, as at this rate he’d be able to make something entertaining out of a terms and conditions agreement.