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‘Molly’s Game’: Aaron Sorkin plays a predictable hand

By Harry Windsor
The screenwriter leaves nothing unexplained in his directorial debut

Molly’s Game (released nationally on February 1) is the first film Aaron Sorkin has directed himself, and it couldn’t be more topical. The screenwriter’s first female-led film since 1995’s The American President, it chronicles a woman trying to survive in a glamorous world – here, that of high-stakes poker – dominated by rapacious men. Jessica Chastain plays real-life figure Molly Bloom, a national-team skier who suffered a freak accident on the slopes that sent her down another career path entirely, running the biggest underground poker games in New York City and Los Angeles over a dozen years.

The real Bloom wrote a book about the experience, and Sorkin tells that story as well as what happened after the book was published, when Bloom was arrested by the FBI. Idris Elba plays her lawyer, and much of the film takes place in his vast high-rise office. Cutting back and forth between timelines, Sorkin is able to have Bloom comment on herself, with Chastain’s mile-a-minute voice-over present right from the opening frame.

Washing up in Los Angeles after her accident, Bloom gets a job as a cocktail waitress, where her smarts impress a producer who hires her as his assistant. He proceeds to scream obscenities in her face and throw bagels at her head. She also begins running his poker nights, attended by high rollers and movie stars, including the sociopathic Player X (Michael Cera, reportedly playing a version of the real-life Tobey Maguire, though Sorkin denies it). When her boss decides to stop paying Molly – you make tips, he tells her – she cuts him out, relocating the game to the penthouse suite of a Hollywood hotel. Player X follows, but when he asks why she never pays him any attention and demands a stake in her business, Molly gets cut out herself, and decamps to New York to start again.

Sorkin also flashes back intermittently to her childhood in Colorado, through which everything that follows, the film suggests, can be understood. Larry Bloom, played by Kevin Costner, takes his daughter out shooting, and mocks her when the pre-teen complains of being tired. This may be the most charmless character Costner has ever played, a more inflexible (and perhaps realistic) version of the kind of stoic American the actor has made his own.

As in The Social Network, the film has a tricky structure, with an unreliable narrator spinning a yarn to lawyers. Elba’s character, Jaffey, catches Molly out when she substitutes a racial epithet used by a side-player in her own story for something more innocuous, and we realise that a scene we’ve already seen dramatised was a gloss on the real thing. Attorney and client are occasionally interrupted by Jaffey’s daughter, a precocious tween who, in addition to her homework, writes essays assigned by her father. One of them is on The Crucible, a work that Sorkin has both Bloom and Jaffey loudly endorse.

The director’s conception of Molly as the victim of a witch-hunt may be why he hired cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who shot Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt. Her sleek location photography, from 52nd Street to the snowy mountains of Canada, gives the film a momentum – not to mention a visual sense – that is arrested whenever it returns to the four walls of Jaffey’s office.

Chastain is typically assured, while Elba seems a little short of breath, a little marble-mouthed trying to get through some of Sorkin’s monologues. Jaffey is an interesting role, supposedly reconstructed but still willing to tell Molly what to wear. It almost feels like a conscious nod to Sorkin’s own can’t-help-himself brand of condescension (a few years ago he took part in a writers roundtable, and his advice to the grumbling unemployed members of his own guild was to “write better”).

But any sense of self-awareness dissipates by the disastrously literal finale, in which Sorkin cuts back to the aftermath of Molly’s accident. As the score from composer Daniel Pemberton swells, she gets up off the snow and dusts herself off – Molly learns how to get back up. Her story closes with a voice-over from none other than Winston Churchill, who’s having a bumper year at the movies: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

There’s a line in last year’s HBO documentary Spielberg (available on Foxtel Now) about the Jaws director not exactly being known for ambiguity. Like Spielberg, Sorkin is a Hollywood player whose surname evokes an entire fictional world, and, like him, he’s fond of spoonfeeding. Sorkin fills in the blanks, providing psychological explication instead of letting the audience figure it out for themselves. A climactic scene in Molly’s Game has Costner’s character, a psychiatrist, subjecting Molly to “three years of therapy in three minutes”, in an airless scene that attributes the events of the film to daddy issues.

If you walk out of the cinema and never think about Molly Bloom again, don’t worry – the thinking’s been done for you.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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