MOLLY’S GAME (2017, R, 140 minutes, STX ENTERTAINMENT/ENTERTAINMENT ONE)
I like Aaron Sorkin’s brain.
The genius screenwriter behind A FEW GOOD MEN, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, and MONEYBALL finally takes a seat in the director’s chair, and serves up a film that isn’t too bad for a first outing. Here, Sorkin relates the true-life tale of Molly Bloom, a woman who ran the most elite poker games the East and West coasts have ever seen. But when she gets arrested and the Feds decide to prosecute, it is Molly’s staunch hold over the names of the people involved that becomes the focus—mostly due to the fact that she refuses to release any of those names.
Jessica Chastain (INTERSTELLAR, THE MARTIAN) does an exceptional job with the role, making Molly strong and confident while on the job, and sweetly innocent in her defiance of the wrongs being done against her. There is a tenderness underneath that gruff exterior; this is a woman whose independence is just as important as her freedom is, and she’s smart enough to keep you on your toes. Her attorney is played by Idris Elba—seriously, was a prettier film released this year? With Sorkin’s brain, Elba’s chiseled good looks, and Chastain’s ever-present cleavage, this movie should be a precursor to sex, even if there isn’t any in the film.
And by switching up the typical style of storytelling, Sorkin reveals himself to be as thoughtful of a director as he is a writer. Told in flashbacks (mostly from her attorney’s office) and narrated by Bloom, this is the type of element that would have made BLOW a better film. Even the recent AMERICAN MADE would have fared better had the director thought to tell the story in the same manner Sorkin does—in fact, Hollywood needs to make him an honorary Celluloid Feng Shui Expert. While many other films can get hung up on and have to take giant narrative leaps to keep a certain flow going, Sorkin seems to pull it off naturally. There are no road bumps, no stumbling moments in the storyline that do not feel natural.
Kevin Costner, Brian d’Arcy James, and Michael Cera are all standouts, but the scene stealer of the film (besides that swooping neckline) is Chris O’Dowd, who seems to make every movie that he is in better just because of his inclusion. While Chastain is a strong enough presence to carry the film herself, the rest of the cast is in top form; usually, you see this type of acting when it is a former actor doing the directing, but lately authors have made for more heartfelt directors. Stephen Chobsky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” would have been an entirely different movie, had the writer not directed the film himself. So it is here—every character seems fleshed out, each is their own person. With your typical ensemble, everyone is doing their damnedest to stand out. Here, each character has meaning.
The only issues I have with the film involve Mr. Sorkin’s visual eye. With the aid of cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (FENCES, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN), Mr. Sorkin captures the prestige of the games, and the solemnity of the courtroom. A sweeping chase (of sorts) in an ice skating rink, and the thrill of downhill skiing, add little thrilling moments to the events taking place. Yet at times they feel subversive, and detract from the visual style of storytelling Mr. Sorkin has engaged. It isn’t enough to derail the picture, or even the narrative itself. They are necessary elements to the story, but aren’t consistent enough to help define a solid visual style.
This is certainly a movie worth seeing, if not for the story itself, then to see Mr. Sorkin’s first time behind the lens. With as good as this outing was, I suspect his next will be even better.
-- T.S. Kummelman