Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is known for having his characters spout out lines of dialogue as fast as a typewriter in constant motion. They speak intellectually and, for the most part, have some intense conversation laced with a moment of humor for levity. After his departure from The West Wing in 2003 (he still received credit for being the show’s creator until its ending in 2006), and a flop in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkin has put most of his focus on recounting true stories of flawed people taking giant risks in their industries. Whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Billy Beane in Moneyball, or Steve Jobs in Steve Jobs, Sorkin shows the viewer that, despite the issues facing them, these people proved to be successful in the long run. And Sorkin doesn’t just look at how these people operated in the business world; he also showed viewers how their personal lives were deeply affected by issues outside of their work.
While the last four films Sorkin penned, starting with 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War, have shown us successful yet flawed men, his latest, Molly’s Game, puts its focus on a successful yet flawed woman named Molly Bloom. Adapted from the memoir of the same name, and also making his debut in the director’s chair, Sorkin recreates the story of how a once-Olympic hopeful turned to the world of high stakes poker and ran a successful business for a decade before FBI agents raided her home and seized everything she owned.
Jessica Chastain portrays Molly Bloom, who, after a horrific accident on the ski slopes, retires from achieving her dreams of becoming an Olympic skier. She flees to Los Angeles to start a new life and finds herself working numerous jobs from being a nightclub waitress to an office manager for some arrogant real estate developer named Dean (Jeremy Strong). It’s here where Molly learns of the underground poker tournaments Dean runs every week, in which many big names come to play and either win big or go home empty-handed.
Dean becomes too controlling and too hot-headed, eventually terminating Molly as both his assistant to his real estate business and his assistant to the poker tournaments. But Molly, having the information of everyone in attendance, sets up her own poker tournaments and starts a financially successful business for herself.
The only major issue here with Molly’s poker business is that it’s not legal. She tries to play it off as such, but word of her tournaments goes from outside of the A-list crowd to the Russian mob, which then captures the interest of the FBI. Nearly penniless, and most certainly heading to prison, Molly finds herself going to defense attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). Due to her current position, he almost refuses to take her case. But, after reading her memoir and since his daughter is a fan of hers, he becomes the lawyer for her case.
For those who aren’t too invested in the world of poker, that’s OK. Throughout the film’s 140-minute runtime, Molly guides the audience through all of the technical terms affiliated with the game, as well as information about her background, via voiceover narration. It’s a method that can sometimes come across as a tacky way to get through the setup phase of a story, but Sorkin’s writing - and Chastain’s reading of it - make it informative and fun to hear. Not one moment has the character begging for forgiveness from the audience, and it never feels like a dry, boring lecture. At times, though, it does almost feel too much exposition heavy, especially when we get details about how all of Molly’s siblings have been successful and she hasn’t.
Chastian is sensational as the film’s main character, starting off as a vulnerable fish out of water who slowly, but surely, finds her place in the world and is able to dominate in a business that is mostly occupied and frequented by men. When Molly’s world crumbles, Chastain excels at showing the deep cuts her character is experiencing, and the struggles she faces. Of course, Chastain has proven to perfectly play strong women, as she did in both Zero Dark Thirty and Miss Sloane. So, it’s no surprise that she’s able to own the role of Molly Bloom without hesitation, and she is one of the film’s many shining moments.
Elba excels as her attorney, and when the two first encounter, their battle of words and interests ignite the screen. Terrific chemistry from both exceptional actors make the legal issues revolving around Molly’s Game a lot of fun to watch.
There’s a terrific lineup of supporting actors that enter the poker tournaments each week. Michael Cera is only known as Player X, and is, supposedly, based on how Tobey Maguire is in real life. He’s a sleazy individual, playing more for personal satisfaction in defeating those around him rather than obtaining however much is in the pot. It’s against type for Cera, but he plays the part extremely well.
Those who enter the game all have their quirks. Most of the characters are married and have kids, but don’t want that lifestyle anymore. One of them being the great Chris O’Dowd, who’s almost always intoxicated and tries - and fails - to get with Molly. She’s too smart to have a romantic relationship with clients, and, thankfully, Sorkin only touches on this a little bit. It doesn’t become one big gag throughout the movie.
But then you have people like Bill Camp, whose character comes across as trustworthy and faithful to his wife. He is one of the smartest men in the room, and those who face him fear they will lose it all. But there are events that take a turn for the worse for his character, and Camp’s performance is one of the more tragic in Molly’s Game.
It’s already well-established that Sorkin is great at building intriguing characters and giving them a bunch of intelligent dialogue. So, how does he do as a first-time director? For the most part, he’s able to make Molly’s Game a zippy, highly-energetic ride. The poker scenes are fast and perfectly timed. But when it comes to the more personal stuff, the film has a tendency to drag.
One scene, in particular, shows Molly finding herself after everything that has happened and then magically coming across her father (Kevin Costner) in New York City. It’s almost too formulaic and, while necessary to show growth in her character, feels out of place. Costner is fine, despite being limited, and the scene with him and Chastain coming to terms with everything is watchable, but it also doesn’t seem to fit in with everything else leading up to it.
The Blu-ray for Molly’s Game comes with both a DVD copy, as well as a digital download version of the movie. The picture is presented in a 1080p, 2:40:1 transfer and the audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. Every line of dialogue comes across clear, which is needed for a Sorkin film.
The one downside to the Blu-ray is that it only has one special feature, “Building an Empire,” that lasts for three minutes. It plays like an extended trailer for the movie, showing interview segments with Chastain, Sorkin, and Bloom in between. There are also some trailers for other movies before the main menu appears, but that’s it in terms of extras.
Molly’s Game is a strong debut for Sorkin as a director, even if it does feel a little too long, and some moments don’t entirely work. The performances are exceptional all around, and the dialogue is clever and witty. It’s another intriguing entry in Sorkin’s continuing series of fact-based feature films.