Few can dispute Aaron Sorkin’s singular talent as a screenwriter. His films are unmistakable, renowned for their keen insight and sharp, quick-fire dialogue. So when he took to the director’s chair for the very first time for ‘Molly’s Game’ Hollywood held its collective breath. Were we about to witness the birth of the next great filmmaker, or would Sorkin fall flat on his face and creep silently back to his typewriter?
‘Molly’s Game’, based on the memoir of the same name, is the true story of Molly Bloom, a one-time skier who moves to California to start a new life after an accident derails her Olympic dream. Bloom, played by the Academy Award-winning Jessica Chastain, lands a job working as an assistant to a man who runs underground card games on the side, and soon discovers she has a knack for hosting high-stakes poker for A-list clients. Fast forward to the present day and the FBI are camped outside Bloom’s luxury home waiting to arrest her.
The film flits between two separate timelines, as Bloom, now in custody, retells her story to her lawyer, played by Idris Elba. But for a film about high-stakes Poker, there’s little jeopardy here. Instead of an edge-of-your-seat expose of Hollywood’s seamy underbelly, what we get is a banal, almost rambling account of Bloom’s complex life. As a filmmaker, Sorkin is clearly proficient, but all too often the action feels fragmented, with one too many unnecessary flourishes, including a scene in which a hand of poker takes on a lurid video game-like quality. A brave move, as by this point in the film the audience might be tempted to whip out their phones and become a BitCasino High Roller in their own high-stakes online game.
As you’d expect from the Godfather of quick-fire repartee, it’s a film packed with dialogue; and while at times insightful and engaging, it lacks the zip of previous projects. Sorkin is clearly enthralled by his subject, describing Bloom to one reporter at Awards Daily as something of a latter-day hero, but for the most part, this passion fails to materialise on screen.
And the cast has to shoulder some of the blame. Chastain is undoubtedly an accomplished actor, but here, at least, she fails to sparkle. There’s an energy lacking in her performance, and while Sorkin’s script paints Bloom as a brilliant, magnetic figure, we rarely see it from Chastain herself. Elba does his best as Bloom’s dramatic foil, but he seems to struggle with the accent, and a palpable lack of chemistry between the pair sees many of their scenes fall flat. In fact, the most gripping and suspenseful moments in the film come at the poker table, and here, at least, Sorkin displays real skill behind the camera. But this only serves to highlight the film’s shortcomings, and by contrast, Bloom’s own story seems to play out with grim predictability.
But there are high points, including a scene-stealing performance from Michael Cera as celebrity high-roller Player X, an interesting cameo from a grizzled Kevin Costner, and what The Guardian calls a “strongly performed argument” between Chastain and her Elba towards the end of the piece.
Ultimately though, with a bloated run-time of nearly two and a half hours, these moments are too few and far between and do little to rescue what is essentially an average film. And while Sorkin sees Bloom as a figure of strength and integrity (based largely on the fact that she never gave up the names of her famous clientele to the FBI), what we get on screen is a portrait of a successful, if unremarkable, entrepreneur.