Director: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Brian d’Arcy James, Graham Greene
Run Time: 140 mins
Molly’s Game is a competent film that has an especially strong first half, spearheaded by Jessica Chastain’s brilliant central performance. It is directed by famed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, behind films such as The Social Network and Steve Jobs, who now steps into the director’s chair. As is to be expected based on his previous works, the script is very sharp, full of quips and impressively wordy. Sorkin’s adapted screenplay is based on the true story of Molly Bloom, a former Olympic-class skier, who is targeted by the FBI for running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game, which the film investigates and recounts.
Chastain is brilliant in the lead role, who narrates her life experiences and when combined with Sorkin’s sharp script, is a particularly magnetic screen presence. The supporting cast, although typically extensions of Aaron Sorkin as they also possess an impressive vocabulary, are mostly solid. The standouts are Idris Elba as Molly’s lawyer who is reliably strong and Michael Cera and Bill Camp, as two poker players in the games. Cera plays a composite character of other famous actors who were alleged to have participated in the games (the film doesn’t disclose true identities). His performance is snarky and slimy and there is a moment where we see a very sinister side to his character that is executed to a tee. Camp, on the other hand, plays a gambling addict, and there is a particularly heartfelt and intense sequence mid-way through the film where he is literally playing for his life.
The first half of the film is a particular highlight and is frequently riveting. The prologue to the film, which recounts Molly’s skiing attempts, is a masterful sequence that is edited superbly and manages to synthesise the themes of family, competition and chance extremely assuredly. As Molly gets herself deeper into the world of poker, the film channels some of Scorsese’s gangster films juxtaposed by Sorkin’s peppery dialogue. It’s really well done and although the poker games are jargon-heavy, the script explains to the audience the nuts and bolts of what is going on, but suprisingly never in a patronising manner.
The second half of the film doesn’t fare quite as well and is tonally uneven. There are some great sequences scattered within, particularly a monologue by Elba’s lawyer and a vicious attack by a gangster, but it feels convoluted and lacks the energy that carries the first half.
The film could also have been much darker. Sorkin’s script investigates some mature themes such as gambling, drug addiction and the troubles and dilemmas within family. Had Sorkin explored these in greater, more intrinsic detail, the film would have been much better for it. Instead, it is more a slightly uneasy collection of ideas, but not all of them fully developed.
The chronology of the film also feels off. Different timelines are interspersed into the narrative and there were a few moments where I wasn’t quite sure where in the chronology the film was in. Also, Molly’s rise to the top took many years to achieve but it feels like days or weeks in how the film paces itself.
Furthermore, Sorkin isn’t as good a director as he is a writer but it’s clear to see that his past experience of working with directing heavyweights such as David Fincher or Danny Boyle for example, has paid off as he definitely seems to have learnt a few lessons from them. But considering Molly’s Game is as debut effort from him, it’s quite possible that after he has some more experience, he could be very good. At least the film looks the part as it is shot rather handsomely by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen and Daniel Pemberton turns in a fitting if somewhat obvious score.
Molly’s Game is ultimately a good film with a stronger first half, anchored by Chastain’s and some of the supporting cast’s performances. Sorkin balances both directorial and screenwriting jobs well, even if his script outshines his direction. With a tighter second half, more experienced direction, more intrinsic analysis of some of the film’s darker themes and a better sense of chronology, Molly’s Game could have been brilliant. Instead, it is pretty solid with some gripping sequences, if rather ultimately unremarkable.