Friday, July 19, 2024

‘Molly’s Game’ Exemplifies the Best and Worst of Aaron Sorkin

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Molly’s Game is a fantastically fun and intelligent movie that stumbles almost fatally toward the end. Sorkin’s dialogue is as distinctive as most directors’ visual styles. Like Kevin Smith or David Mamet, upon hearing the characters speak we can almost always guess the author.

There is a valid argument to be made that Sorkin’s dialogue is too theatrical, and that he almost pathologically has to remind you how smart he is. Still, living in an era of anti-intellectualism, as we do, it’s refreshing to hear intelligent people speak as if they are actually intelligent. That a writer would dare to have a distinctive style that separates himself from his peers and makes him identifiable in an era of assembly line blockbusters, is refreshing.

In a way, Molly’s Bloom’s book Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire’s Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker is perfect for Sorkin. The title alone is practically Sorkin-esque. As a screenwriter he’s made his name with movies like Social Network and Moneyball. Movies about complex niche areas of knowledge that Sorkin’s particular brand of dialogue somehow mystically makes it comprehensible. He has a way of both explaining a thing so we can understand it while also drawing comparisons to other ideas and facts to make a salient and potent point.

Molly Bloom’s (Jessica Chastain) story would give any other writer pause. One of three children, Molly is a ski jumper on her way to the Olympics. After a serendipitous sequence of events her dreams of Olympic gold become side-lined. Soon she finds herself running poker games for the Hollywood elite.

How she gets there and her many falls from grace after are the bread and butter of Molly’s Game. Molly Bloom is the type of smart that would require a screenwriter with Sorkin’s touch. She’s wry, wickedly sharp, and has an immense capacity for learning things quickly. Sorkin has been accused, rightfully, of often giving his women characters short shrift narratively and dramatically.

With Molly we get the sense this is Sorkin’s attempt to reconcile those criticisms. For the most part he succeeds. Molly Bloom is the most complex woman Sorkin has ever written, possibly perhaps, because she actually exists. Her flaws become quickly apparent but her flaws are hers and she owns them. What’s so striking about Molly’s Game is how Sorkin attempts to illustrate how men wield and abuse power so nakedly and nonchalantly.

Molly is constantly told by men that she is either not good enough or too good. Time and time again her male bosses try to stifle her success or male partners try to take away her accomplishments. She starts out as a secretary for a man Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong). Molly is in fact, his assistant and planner, charged with setting up poker games and keeping track of the wins and losses.

It’s through these games she meets Player X (Michael Cera).  She becomes so good at her job that Dean tells her he’s going to stop paying her as his assistant yet she can still keep the tips. It’s implied Dean does this because he’s jealous of the attention Molly gives the other players, as is her job. She dresses sexily, as she is told to do, and is ultimately punished for it.

So Molly starts up her own games stealing the most valuable asset Dean had, Player X. Player X is a Hollywood big shot who is the sole reasons the games are a hit. Businessmen and bankers from all over flock to the games simply so they can say they’ve played with him. At one point Player X admits he doesn’t even like poker. When asked why he plays he smiles, “I like destroying people’s lives.”

Later on he attempts to strong arm Molly into giving him half the game’s winning and cap her tips. Again, because of how she interacts with other men. The pattern is clear. Because Molly looks a certain way and behaves a certain way, men assume ownership of her. Her agency is but a stumbling block to them.

When Sorkin deals with the issues of Molly’s agency and perfectly categorizing the male power structure and how it can be deathly toxic and infantile Molly’s Game is dazzling. The problem is, ironically, Sorkin himself. The man just can’t escape his own pitfalls.

For as much as Sorkin shows us the complex and flawed Molly Bloom, he all but brushes it aside as essentially daddy issues. Molly’s father Larry (Kevin Costner) a psychology professor has pushed and challenged Molly all her life. They’ve never had the best relationship.

As Molly’s trial nears the sentencing stage her father appears and the two have a heart to heart. The conversations is infuriatingly typical Sorkin. Larry cites Molly’s obsessive need to overcome powerful men as pathological because when she was five she caught him cheating on her mother. Apparently being constantly demeaned and harassed because of your looks and gender comes from your dad being a dick.

This is made even more annoying when Larry tries to help Molly understand her failure at the ski slope isn’t on her. “You tripped over a stick. That’s it.” Sorkin loves to reduce complex emotional arcs into perfect pithy lines. I actually quite like this one.

The crux of the problem in Molly’s Game, though, is the daddy issues resolution. Or to put a fine point on it the complete erasure of Molly’s mother. Molly’s mother, is mentioned, but has no name, and plays no role in her daughter’s life. Despite clearly being a part of it and being someone she’s living with at varying times throughout the movie.

Sorkin has a tendency to be a little too reductive when it comes to his character motivations and when he is his own director there’s no one to reign him in. Conversations go on for just a bit too long. Sorkin, like most writers, loves the sound of his own words. But film isn’t a medium for words though.

There is narration throughout the film by Molly. Some of it helpful some of it not. Whatever the case may be it feels wall to wall. Sorkin lucked into getting Jessica Chastain, one of the best young actresses working today, and the script won’t let her stop talking and act. Part of this is ego and part of it is Sorkin not understanding in film image is king.

There is a story about the great director John Ford. He was shooting a film in the desert and something had happened to cause a delay. One of his crew members asked what they were to shoot now? Ford replied, “What can we shoot? The most interesting and exciting thing in the whole world; a human face.”

Sorkin somehow never got the memo. In his directorial debut, we learn that Sorkin’s visual style is this just this side of workmanlike. It’s not bad but it’s not good either. It’s just kind of there. His words do most of the storytelling as the images and editing just help movie it along. But with film the opposite should be true.

Chastain is more than up to the task. We find ourselves wishing for less clever dialogue and more just the camera observing Chastain’s face; an exciting and interesting image surely. Chastain handles Sorkin’s dialogue with such flair that she is able to curb back some of his hubris. She understands who she is, and more importantly she understands how people view her.

Her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) underestimates her as most men do. We tend to see a woman flaunting her looks and immediately deduct iq points and moral value. Charlie begins to realize that Molly, while she has made some bad decisions, is actually pretty smart and virulently principled.

Molly’s Game comes alive when Elba and Chastain spar. Their scenes have a magnetic tension, it’s not sexual, it’s something much more interesting. It is instead two adults desperately trying to stake out an argument in a way so that the other can understand where they’re coming from. It’s Sorkin at his best as people argue ideas, life choices, and banter about The Crucible.

Chastain carries the picture, which for a movie written by Sorkin, is a certifiable Herculean feat. Sorkin’s debut is smart, funny but maybe just a little too full of itself. Molly’s Game is so good it’s shame it’s not great.


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