I spent the first hour of Molly’s Game wondering how it was that Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut didn’t receive more awards exposure last year. Then it became clear, as he very nearly blows it. Not enough to ruin the picture, but more than sufficiently to remind you this was the guy responsible for the saccharine, well-meaning, fantasy-land White House of The West Wing.
As with all his screenplays in the last decade (Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball, Steve Jobs, the forthcoming Luci and Desi), Sorkin has adapted an account of actual events and, in that way of his, has brought out all the best juices in the material. I hadn’t heard of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) and her prosecution for running illegal poker games (most particularly of interest to the FBI being their attendance by members of the Russian mob). But Sorkin has typically seized on a rich seam to mine, a hermetic world of addiction and eccentrics, and rules frequently broken, even or especially ones that aren’t even legal.
The first five minutes set the tone splendidly, documenting Molly’s curtailed professional skiing ambitions (“None of this has anything to do with poker”); it’s a powerhouse of introductory exposition, something to stand up there with Goodfellas for scrupulously well used narration. Chastain, not really memorable in her roles, seizes hold of this one and quite understandably doesn’t let go; it can be a luxuriant experience to be immersed in Sorkin’s gift for dialogue and narrative – you know you’re in not just safe but supremely capable hands with a torrent of legalese and gambling code that would have been bewildering from anyone else – and it’s very easy to surrender to Molly as she propels the proceedings along.
Everything prior to the acts for which she is being prosecuted – taking a rake – makes for especially compelling viewing. She hosts high-stakes poker games, first at the behest of real-estate developer and all-round louse Dean (Jeremy Strong), and then on her own, with Hollywood actor Player X (Michael Cera) as her star attraction. Sorkin and his editors (while he may not have revealed himself as a hitherto untapped directorial genius, the film is cut for maximum impact) ensure these sections are perfectly judged and delivered: the inner tensions, the personalities and foibles on display.
Player X was reputedly Tobey Maguire, although Sorkin has commented that he’s a composite; whatever the truth of the situation, Cera makes X a complete shit. Indeed, I’m so used to his playing beta-comedy guys, it’s genuinely impressive to see him get into something dripping with malice. Also strong are Bad Brad (Brian d’Arcy James), who plays to lose, since the games bring in clients to his hedge fund (later exposed as a Ponzi scheme), and bona fide player Harlan (Bill Camp), who suffers a memorable meltdown one night after misreading Brad’s hand. Less successful is Chris O’Dowd as Douglas Daly, rather falling into schtick as a drunk who brings the Russian mob into the proceedings at Molly’s request and is eventually revealed as an FBI informant.
Strangely, even though the pressures are increased once Molly is cut out by Player X and moves to New York to re-up her game (bringing in the Russians and various other rich oddballs, one of whom shows up with an authentic Monet as collateral), the ensuing events aren’t quite as compelling (these include a rather brutal attempt by the Italian mob to cut themselves in). The momentum of the first hour is somewhat punctured, and the material becomes patchier. Molly’s drug addiction is the first instance of the picture feeling like its falling prey to cliché in presentation, and the dialogue occasionally takes a turn for the over-ripe (“I felt I was in a hole so deep, I could go fracking”).
Not a deal breaker in itself, though. Idris Elba appears as Charlie Jaffey, Molly’s initially reluctant lawyer – Elba always seems like a more alert, engaged actor when he’s doing an American accent for some reason; maybe it’s just The Wire association – and gives an impassioned speech to the FBI prosecutors, explaining why she doesn’t deserve to be prosecuted (“J Edgar Hoover didn’t have this much shit on Bobby!”) Alas, it’s followed by the entrance proper of Kevin Costner as Molly’s hard-driving psychologist father – whom we’ve previously seen in flashbacks, but knew that couldn’t be the sum of it – called upon to deliver a sermon on why Molly’s a good person and why we should respect her (“Your addiction was having power over powerful men”).
It’s just the kind of sentimental, affirmative offal the picture didn’t need at this point, used to underpin Molly’s scruples in refusing to name other players (citing her good name as “it’s all I have left”). Sorkin nearly succeeds in unravelling all his earlier work (and even appears to be suggesting psychology as a panacea for explaining the entire human condition, very twentieth century of him).
Perhaps he wasn’t confident Molly’s Game would seem other than a fizzle when the judge commuted her sentence to a fine and 200 hours community service, so felt the need to beef things up emotionally, to deliver the triumph of a decent person. When, in fact, the confident, can-do, worldly-wise Molly was the one who was most appealing. There’s still everything else in the picture to enjoy, but it’s a shame Sorkin stumbled so clumsily in sight of the finishing line.