Launching in the vocabulary of Adam McKay’s The Big Short – before landing somewhere a touch more ordinary – Molly’s Game may not entirely be the visually coherent triumph that Sorkin surely has in him but remains an unfailingly absorbing directorial debut from The Social Network writer. His tremendous cast, led by Jessica Chastain, is a bonus.
Remarkable true life stories are always being nabbed by directors but it’s rare to find the resultant biopic less glamorous than reality. Yet, such is the case with Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut. That’s no criticism; how does one out-Hollywood a story that boasts bone fide A-Listers in hotel micro-casinos, the Mafia, a big old court case and awful skiing accent? Molly Bloom’s infamous rise and fall in high stakes poker ticked all these boxes and Michael Cera is no Leonardo DiCaprio.
Whip sharp, startlingly intelligent and fiercely competitive, Bloom (Chastain) could have conquered any career but she bet her life on gambling. A one-time pro skiier, Bloom’s story begins here with the instant in which her Olympic dream came to a crippling end. It’s a cruel twist of fate, entirely dependent of chance, and far more relevant than Molly’s sardonic voiceover is prepared to admit. Indeed, Molly’s Game isn’t simply one more spin in the splash-your-cash canon (as per The Wolf Of Wall Street) but one more film to subvert the surface plot, in favour of an intimate study of humanity and relationships. Yep, it’s not about the gambling.
The most fascinating character here is, of course, Molly but that’s not to deny an excellent turn too from Idris Elba, whose masterful talents have been so awfully squandered in recent offerings. Elba plays Molly’s lawyer Charlie Jaffey and it is through his digging that she is narratorially transformed into a fascinating enigma. Chastain may not be quite so electrifying here as in last year’s, weaker overall, Miss Sloane but this is a performance with a greater sense for nuance and a degree of empathy. Molly makes poor choices but does so with consistent integrity. ‘I was raised to be a champion,’ she says, ‘I wanted to win.’
With more than a little dramatisation at work, Molly’s relationship with her father (Kevin Costner) is likewise a success, building to an impressive and deeply rewarding climax in the final act. It was he who instilled in Molly that obsessive passion for competition – a double-edged sword, for it was her that was damaged in the process.
A Sorkin script is renowned for its density and, as a writer, his talent soars to the level that it would be a strong argument that called him as much the auteur of his earlier work as their respective directors. In this light, Molly’s Game does feel a lot like the product of a scriptwriter making the transition to directing. So packed is the film, for instance, that a degree of refinement is occasionally prevalent. It is as though Sorkin has yet to quite find the style to match his voice. The film that sees him achieve this will be untouchable.
Gifting a perfectly ‘Hollywood’ real-life plot, however, Molly’s Game sees Sorkin deliver a thoroughly engaging piece of work. Not so remarkable nor memorable as it could have been, the film is nonetheless a product of intrigue, elevated by one heck of a cast.