What it's about:
The true story of Molly Bloom, whose Olympic career as a skier was cut short after a random accident on the slopes but who then went on to run some of the most exclusive, high-stake poker games in the United States. Her fortunes soon came crashing down, however, when the government seized all her money after learning of some short-lived and fairly minor illegal activity on her part during the games – but that only proved to be the beginning of her troubles.
What we thought:
Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, the Social Network) has always been a writer who needs a very particular kind of director to bring visual life to his almost supernaturally verbose scripts, as well as actors who can manage to keep up with the onslaught of words that threaten to drown them at every turn. The West Wing arguably remains his crowning achievement precisely because of its peerlessly great cast; its team of directors led by Thomas Schlamme who were perfectly simpatico with Sorkin's writing style and, of course, dealt with the kind of subject matter that perfectly fits his grandiose ambitions that at best speak to a real sense of unbroken idealism but at worst come off as hectoring grandstanding of the worst order.
Straight off the bat, then, Molly's Game seems like a bit of a strange fit for Sorkin's talents. The cast is great but however much you can potentially imagine someone like Jessica Chastain adapting to the rapid-fire pitter-patter of Sorkin's dialogue, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner and Michael Cera tend to have a more laid-back style that seems at odds with the usual Sorkin actor. The subject matter of the life and times of a disgraced Olympic skier turned poker game-runner doesn't have the kind of world-changing gravitas of the invention of Facebook, let alone an American presidency. And, considering how difficult it clearly is to bring his work to the screen, it takes a certain level of chutzpah for Sorkin to use a film this flashy to try his hand at directing.
But then, Aaron Sorkin has always been a rather unpredictable creative force. Who would have thought, for example, that an intimate look at a few key points on the life of Steve Jobs would fit Sorkin far better than his overbearingly sanctimonious, if occasionally (thanks mostly to Jeff Daniels) powerful, screed on the state of news media? Or, for that matter, who would think that his work would be such a perfect fit for someone like David Fincher, whose own directorial vision leans much harder into atmosphere-building and deliberate pacing should be at odds with the witty but manic yackety yack of Sorkin's writing? And yet, the Social Network remains arguably his greatest film and the Newsroom his greatest misfire.
Where does that leave Molly's Game? Well, though it doesn't reach the dizzying heights of his best work, it's an immensely enjoyable (if slightly over-long) character drama that is both more substantial than its subject matter might suggest and far more visually stylish than you would ever expect of the directorial début of the consummate writer's writer.
Obviously part of its success lies in the typically brilliant performances turned in by Idris Elba and – appearing in damn near every single frame of the film – Jessica Chastain but however good they are (and they're really, really good) and however much Sorkin is clearly having fun cutting loose a bit with subject matter that is simultaneously glamorous and pathetic, the film is as good as it is because of the subtly subversive storytelling that Sorkin employs to turn a Goodfellas-lite romp into an elegantly told examination of the way we create assumptions about ourselves and how that plays both with and against our most deeply held values.
He does this with plenty of his characteristic humour and big-heartedness and, perhaps more impressively, he does this without the smugness or sanctimonious grandstanding that sometimes makes his lesser work rather insufferable – even in those moments where characters do a bit of grandstanding of their own. He clearly has more than a certain amount of fondness for the complicated woman at the centre of this tale and that not only results in his sidestepping some of his worst tendencies, it also makes Molly's Game the most affable and broadly likeable thing he's done in a while. Steve Jobs and the Social Network are probably better and more powerful films overall but they both have a level of – if not cynicism then at least broken idealism that is largely missing in this story of Russian mobsters and hopeless gamblers.
It is admittedly a bit on the long side and, once again, Kevin Costner is rather wasted in his role of an uninspiring “inspirational” parental figure (though at least this time he doesn't screw up Superman in the process) but Molly's Game is a must for Sorkin fans and is far, far more entertaining and more worthwhile than its uninspiring premise might suggest. You might follow along slightly better if you are one, but you don't have to be a poker fan to get a kick out of this.