by Hope Madden
As screenwriters go, few have as noticeable a presence as Aaron Sorkin. A Sorkin screenplay = smart people saying smart things really quickly, over top of each other, often while walking.
His are dialogue-driven character pieces where brilliant people throw intellectual and moral challenges at one another while the audience wonders whether the damaged protagonist’s moral compass can still find true north.
That struggling hero this time around is Molly Bloom, played by the always-sharp Jessica Chastain. On first blush, the idea that Sorkin—directing his first feature—would choose to focus on a gossip-page celebrity criminal seems wrong. Bloom became tabloid fodder after her arrest made her high stakes, celebrity-filled poker games big news.
Gossip is not Sorkin’s wheelhouse, but unsung, solitary brilliance is and that’s what he hopes you see in Bloom, an Olympic-class skier with Harvard Law plans who found herself hosting insane poker games before realizing she had the wherewithal to build an epically lucrative business.
This is clear movie-of-the-week stuff elevated to something worthwhile because Sorkin is more interested in the evolution and entrapment of a brilliant mind than he is in movie stars playing poker. Although there is some of that, too, and it is provocatively handled by Michael Cera.
Playing against type and relishing the opportunity, Cera’s “Player X”—the Big Movie Star who just likes to ruin lives—is a spoiled brat and the performance is stand-out nasty.
The always underused Idris Elba is underused but excellent as Bloom’s reluctant-but-coming-around attorney Charley Jaffe. His slower, looser style counters Chastain’s machine gun cadence and the chemistry helps to keep the courtroom preparation interesting.
The problem with Molly’s Game—aside from its sometimes amazing similarities to Chastain’s 2016 courtroom drama Miss Sloane—are its many Sorkinisms. Chastain opens the film with an incredibly lengthy voiceover monologue providing all Molly’s backstory in the film’s first big misfire, but the almost dream-sequence bad scene between Molly and her psychoanalyst father (Kevin Costner) on a park bench is nearly insurmountable, Sorkin fan or no.
Appreciating Molly’s Game helps if you are a Sorkin fan. He has a particular style and, since he’s directing this one as well, there is no getting away from that style. There’s no David Fincher or Danny Boyle to supply a bit of visual flair to offset all of Sorkin’s writerly tendencies. Sorkin is everywhere, which is not necessarily a bad thing if you like sharp performances about smart people doing fascinating things.