At a time when Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League still have their collective hands deep in the box-office coffers, Aaron Sorkin has the goods for older audiences, many of whom are looking for an escape from the splash pages. Molly’s Game is everything a cinephile could dream of: Jessica Chastain sparing against a talented ensemble via whip-fast dialogue and burns that need a moment to register. Then throw in Idris Elba (who doesn’t like him?) and — to clinch the deal for every plain-grey-tee-wearing, baseball-loving quadrant of moviegoers — Kevin Costner. The cherry on top of this adult, alternative winter must-see? The film chronicles the true story of Molly Bloom, the Olympian-turned-“Poker Princess,” who was arrested in 2013 for running illegal poker rings.
Even with her analytical mind, Molly could not have foreseen an unlikely mishap such as hitting a twig mid-run during her Olympic trial. The resulting disqualification is one more disappointment to her overbearing father (Costner). Already overshadowed by her intensely successful brothers, Jeremy (an Olympic skier and NFL player) and Jordan (cardio-thoracic medicine), Molly takes a sabbatical in Los Angeles as a cocktail waitress. The job is meant to be a break before law school, but Molly ultimately leverages her position by masterminding underground poker games for the world’s most influential men. Making $3,000 in one night puts law school squarely in her rearview, but Molly isn’t content with merely scheduling these games. Through some crafty maneuvering, and with the assistance of a high-roller referred to as Player X (Michael Cera) for legal purposes, Molly steals the high-stakes game away from her employer completely.
Flash forward several years and Molly is facing RICO charges that could put her away for decades. It turns out that the Russian mafia found their way into her coveted trade, making all of her gains illicit. Penniless, Molly seeks out a lawyer without even a hint of impropriety, which leads her to defense attorney Charlie Jaffey (Elba). Jaffey is more than aware of Molly’s reputation as the “Poker Princess,” which is why he’s skeptical that a woman as researched as his potential client didn’t know better. As an actress, Chastain can easily be overlooked given her extensive filmography, but her performance as Molly Bloom might be the greatest of her career. She carried both Zero Dark Thirty and Miss Sloane, but neither of the scripts gave her the backing she needed to truly deliver that standout moment, an Oscar reel moment; a measured performance that’s equal parts intimidating and seductive.
The only thing halting the momentum of Molly’s Game is a majority of the poker sets. Player X and Molly supposedly have great chemistry, but little of it comes through. Even when a big pot is at risk, Molly sits behind the table, scrolling through the web searching for something to keep herself occupied while the marathons roll into the early morning. Once she steps into Jaffey’s office, the film picks right back up. Despite a few of Elba’s actorly tweaks and the character’s laid-back persona, Sorkin’s trademark dialogue doesn’t lose any of its rat-a-tat-pace. If anything, it makes Chastain’s machine gun delivery stand out even more. She has worked alongside great actors, but none are more suited for verbal clashing than Elba. Viewers should expect nothing less from Sorkin than dazzling wordplay, and the Molly’s Game leads make it look easy.
Sorkin’s directorial debut has distinct positives and negatives that many viewers have come to expect from the Academy Award-winning wordsmith. He’s a phenomenal script writer, but the words are missing the accompanying joie de vivre that visual artists like David Fincher and Danny Boyle provide. The images for one of the most harrowing moments of Molly’s life are framed like a Prozac commercial. Without someone to butt heads with, Sorkin’s words lose their power. Another director might have also saved Sorkin from recreating the same dramatic misfires from HBO’s The Newsroom, where the story crashes to a halt for the film’s subtext to be vocalized. For a film that prides itself on being “based on a true story,” Molly’s Game often relies on moments that are too coincidental, too easy. Yet, there’s nothing here to suggest that Sorkin won’t eventually figure things out behind the camera. One thing is for sure: whatever Sorkin does next, he needs to bring Jessica Chastain along for the ride.
Follow Colin Biggs on Twitter @wordsbycbiggs.