Directed by Aaron Sorkin. Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Michael Cera, Kevin Costner. 141 mins. In cinemas January 1
SORKIN SLAYS IN WILDLY ENTERTAINING DIRECTORIAL DEBUT
Aaron Sorkin’s screenplays – Moneyball, The Social Network, Steve Jobs – have always centred on real life, exceptional individuals in niche professions; people fuelled by a singularly American form of ambition, bordering on obsession.
The protagonists of his screenplays, and his fictitious yet similarly themed TV dramas (The West Wing, The Newsroom, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip) have also always been men – until now. Recounting the true story of Molly Bloom, the so-called ‘Poker Princess’ who ran the world’s highest stakes poker games in LA and New York, Sorkin has hit his safety sweet-spot: a fantastic and complex woman in a world of hardcharging, powerful men.
Jessica Chastain brings strength and sass to the role of Molly, an over-achiever who went from being a young aspiring Olympian to queen of underground high-stakes poker. We come to understand Molly through three jumping timelines – her teenage athleticism and troubled relationship with her father (a brilliantly complicated Kevin Costner); her almost accidental career as a poker game runner; and her subsequent legal struggle as she’s accused of illegal gambling and fraternising with the Russian mafia.
We also learn about Molly through Chastain’s almost constant voice-overs, which provide personal insight. There’s also psychological analysis of the billionaires, Hollywood A-listers and gambling addicts that literally throw down millions of dollars on her table every night. (Michael Cera is brilliant as a baby-faced egomaniac slimeball, outed in Bloom’s memoir as Tobey Maguire.)
The voiceover is excessive – but then, so is all the dialogue, in that wonderfully overarticulated, razor-sharp and warp-speed Sorkin rat-a-tat. Busy and frenetic, his script always has another quip to add, another literary reference to make, another small but fascinating detail to impart. Evoking some of the slickness and sly wit of Adam McKay’s The Big Short, Sorkin shows poker hands through on-screen graphics, while a steady stream of players create a portrait of greed, wealth and ego among America’s one percent.
However, for a film that so delights in the seediness and danger of poker, Molly’s Game does fail to explain where Molly’s almost unbelievable sense of integrity comes from. Even when indicted, she refuses to name most of her players – much to the chagrin of her wary and moralistic lawyer (Idris Elba, shaky until a last-act emotional speech steals the show). Certain aspects of Molly’s life are also glossed-over, such as her drug addiction and any semblance of personal relationships. These omissions do indicate Sorkin’s overly reverential awe for Molly’s intelligence, determination, and – as Cary Grant would put it – moxie.
But it’s a forgivable offence. The story is so fascinating, the plot so entertaining, the dialogue so electrifying, that you can’t help but be wildly entertained. A royal flush.