The directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin is a moment in pop culture worth anticipating. After all, he’s responsible for one of the best shows in television history, and is constantly an Oscar favorite for his screenplays. The opportunity to see what he’d do out there on his own, without the directorial hands of David Fincher, Danny Boyle, and Bennett Miller to guide his screenplay, would certainly be worth a look. I certainly was when I heard he’d cast Jessica Chastain as the lead in Molly’s Game.
Unfortunately, like his recent television projects, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom, without the equally strong hand of a director, he indulges in his absolute worst tendencies. Over and over again in Molly’s Game, characters become mouthpieces for his personal agendas, turning them into shallow, robotic versions of humans no one would recognize in the real world (or any script which had not been written by Sorkin). It would be a surprise to imagine Sorkin cutting a single big speech from his screenplays…and without a director alongside him to provide shape and craft, his directorial debut goes off course right alongside his main character.
Chastain is the title character of Molly, a former competitive skier who goes to LA after failing to land a position at the Olympics and falls into running a high stakes poker game. The skills involved probably are more detailed than Molly’s game presents it, but running high stakes poker seems to require sex appeal, party hosting skills, and a basic understanding of excel spreadsheets. She gets the game through her racist/misogynist boss, cuts him out, gets cut out, and does the same thing in New York…only to “accidentally” (not really) bring in Russian mobsters. She’s arrested for illegal gambling and goes to try with Idris Elba reluctantly alongside her as her attorney Charlie Jaffey. And of course, there’s plenty of Sorkin dialogue.
Molly’s Game suffers from such overstuffed, indulgences to the point that the film at moments feels like self-parody; as if at any moment he’s going to make a joke, a joke that never comes. The film opens with a profanity-heavy monologue in voice-over featuring Jessica Chastain telling a story about the Olympics which ultimately has no purpose except to 1) make the film seem cool and edgy, 2) make Molly seem cool and edgy, and 3) make Sorkin seem like a cool and edgy director. It probably is the moment that Sorkin saw himself most as a “director” as it’s one of the only moments of action on the screen that is somewhat visually interesting. But this sequence is also remarkably boring, and opening your film with a five minute (estimated) monologue told entirely in voice-over is a bad way to get an audience motivated.
If the rule of screenwriting is show don’t tell, Sorkin breaks the rule most of the time. At a hefty two hours and 20 minutes, I would estimate that 70% of the film is told through narration. At points you feel like you’re listening to an audio book, talking about what just happened or is about to happen in ways that feel absurd additions. For example, there is no reason a character should say in voice-over “and then I got a phone call” only to see her pick up the phone and get the very call. Ultimately I left feeling the narration exists in such heavy doses simply because Sorkin wants to tell the audience the details of wealth and excitement he doesn’t know how to present visually, or he believes his audiences are too stupid to fill in the smallest blank.
It’s true that some films work well with voice over, adding a style and humor the film utilizes. For example, American Psycho or Goodfelles. But Sorkin’s narration is often boring, frequently annoying, and heard over uninteresting, slow-moving visuals (there’s no signature walking and talking here). Like listening to a woman at dinner who drops brand names to making her stories more interesting. Molly loves to tell audiences the type of food and drinks she buys, but all that detail isn’t interesting when the story is bland and storyteller robotic. It’s perhaps unfair to talk about Chastain’s performance in such a way, as the skills she has as an actress probably do elevate the poorly written character. Like her characters in Miss Sloane and A Most Violent Year, it is fun to see Chastain relish the opportunity to be in control. But those were well-written characters…and Molly is not. Chastain may be a good fit for Sorkin, but Sorkin is not good for Chastain.
Sorkin’s often had difficulty writing believable women, although the characters of CJ Craig in The West Wing and Joanna Hoffman in Steve Jobs are major exceptions. Perhaps Sorkin is to be commended for making his first film as a director about a woman, and even better to present her as an anti-hero who has no need to be “likable.” But her writes Molly in such shallow manner, he robs her any sense of authenticity, making her very uninteresting to watch.
In truth, however, few of the moments between characters have any authenticity. It’s always been said that Sorkin’s characters don’t talk the way people speak, but Molly’s Game goes far beyond that issue. Considering this is a movie “based on” real life, Sorkin never manages to create a believable world for the characters to play within. With the exception of three (Michael Cera, Bill Camp, and Joe Keery) the performances are well beyond stylized, and fall into the absurd.
Idris Elba’s has so far received praise for his performance, and while it’s far from his best (or even especially memorable) it makes some sense that he’d be called out by critics for what he does manage to accomplish. While the poker flashback scenes are supposed to be thrilling but really rather dull (even when Sorkin attempts to add style) the scenes between Elba and Chastain are at least compelling (most of the time). However, even Elba can’t rise above Sorkin’s worst tendencies, which are at their height as the film comes to a conclusion.
As per usual, Sorkin brings everything down to women wanting fatherly approval (and to be more masculine), and men fearing powerful women (they are also attracted to). There’s nothing new or thought-provoking here, especially from Sorkin, and it is remarkably little in the film which justifies these statements about gender (making it feel all the more like it comes directly from Sorkin. Sorkin is a writer capable of writing interesting men, and if this criticism is the idea he wants to explore, he completely misses the mark. The exposition moments about gender and race seem forced attempts to make Molly’s Game seem more relevant than it truly is. Elba asks why she would present a character in her book as a misogynist but not racist…but then nothing comes from that comment; we aren’t even given an interesting conversation. Moments which open the door for interesting discussions are simply closed as soon as Sorkin makes mention…As if acknowledgment equals exploration in his world.
There is a story in Molly’s Game which would have been worth dramatizing. By all accounts (and in the minimal pieces of the book I have read), Molly had a keen understanding of the asperational lifestyle that comes with high stakes poker. And there is dramatic inner-conflict in how she interacted with men to trade on their own weaknesses. If we’d seen “the world’s most exclusive and glamorous man cave” we’re told these games were, Molly’s Game may have stood a chance. But that would have required Sorkin to go far deeper into Molly (and the players) character than their ability to make speeches…something Sorkin seems unwilling or unable to do.