Film Critique Fridays - Molly's Game / by M. Glenn Gore

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Mild SPOILERS ahead.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I am an enormous fan of Aaron Sorkin's writing. A Few Good Men, the Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated 1992 film based on the 1989 play of the same name, would serve as my introduction to his signature brand of often imitated but never duplicated whip-smart, switchblade-sharp, mile-a-minute dialogue, and to say that I was hooked from that moment forward would be an understatement. The American President would follow, and while this spirited, beloved, and blissfully optimistic fantasy set against the backdrop of a Washington DC that sadly never existed lacked the thematic heft and powerhouse performances of its forerunner, it would soon herald the coming of The West Wing, a weightier, more sprawling exploration of that same universe, which remains some of the most consistently compelling television I've ever witnessed.

I backtracked from West Wing to Sports Night, a two-season, half-hour sitcom chronicling the behind-the-scenes and on-camera antics of a "2nd rate sports show on a 3rd rate network", and that's about when I learned, having no discernible interest (at the time) in sports or politics, that Sorkin's gift was that he could make me care about things I routinely and customarily didn't. He would end up successfully doing this again and again, making me genuinely eager to learn more about how the US secretly supplied arms to the Soviet-opposed Afghan Mujahideen in 2007's Charlie Wilson's War, how Facebook was created in 2010's The Social Network, how baseball teams were built with 2011's Moneyball, and how much of a dick Steve Jobs was in the 2015 biopic Steve Jobs.

How was he able to do this? Well, for one, he has never lacked for exceptional actors. His characters have been portrayed by everyone from Brad Pitt and Jack Nicholson to Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. It's because of Sorkin that I will forever adore the likes of Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, and Bradley Whitford. The two most common attributes that repeatedly draw me to his characters are they're 1) brilliant and 2) passionate. You can count on this every time. I have a love of watching people, heroes and villains alike, be good at what they do, and his characters always are.

So, when I heard Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain, two of the most talented and best looking examples of natural selection alive today, would be tag-teaming not only his newest script but his directorial debut, I didn't even care to ask what it was about. I was all in.

                            I'd have slept outside the theater overnight in a tent to get tickets for this.

                           I'd have slept outside the theater overnight in a tent to get tickets for this.

Molly's Game is based on the 2014 memoir Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker by Molly Bloom, and tells the true story of a world-ranked downhill skier and soon-to-be target of a massive FBI investigation who ends up operating what has got to be the planet's most exclusive high-dollar poker game when an injury dashes her (and her father's) dreams of Olympic gold. And while this is the kind of subject matter I'd normally thumb my nose at (rich people being rich for no other reason than because they're rich), as with everything from Aaron Sorkin what's come before, I found myself intrigued by it, gravitating toward it, and ultimately being won over by it. Simply stated, it did not disappoint.

First and foremost, let's not kid ourselves. Jessica Chastain can act. She hurls herself into the dialogue, which calls for her to both understand and convincingly expound on the most intricate details of downhill skiing as well as speak fluent poker, a game so replete with rules, terms, and jargon that it's practically its own language, and she does this with seemingly effortless command. Not to be outdone, Idris Elba, who plays Molly's lawyer Charles Jaffey, is no less remarkable in his role. He takes on her case, at first begrudgingly, but it isn't long before he finds himself giving a full-throated defense of her character and her actions before the law that is reminiscent of Tom Cruise's own impassioned turn as Daniel Kaffee in the courtroom masterwork A Few Good Men.

                                                                               Seriously, go watch it. I'll wait.

                                                                              Seriously, go watch it. I'll wait.

Their machine-gun fire-like back and forth is so composed and well-executed it rings like music in your ear, and I couldn't help but notice I had a grin from ear to ear every time they were on screen together.

Kevin Costner puts in severe work as Molly's father Larry Bloom, who settles neatly into the long, storied pantheon of overbearing and demanding Sorkin father figures, a theme that occurs so often in his work that I sometimes wonder about his relationship with his own father. Costner's Bloom is a gruff, terse, and seemingly unfeeling taskmaster, who is more devastated by his only daughter's inability to net him a gold medal than even she is. Their dynamic is tense, and grows only tenser as the film progresses. In a movie made up of excellent scenes, theirs are my favorite.

Michael Cera, Chris O'Dowd, and the kid who plays Steve Harrington on Stranger Things all show up and are thoroughly entertaining, even if the latter is only there momentarily.

As this is Sorkin's first time in the director's chair, I want to talk about how he did, and the answer is a resounding, fine. He did fine. It was fine. It's fine. Really. It's fine. Listen, he knows his way around a typewriter in a way few people do, and for that, we can give him a pass, which sounds rude, I know. But he's just not there yet. He's definitely on his way, believe me, and I'll be there to continue supporting his efforts with each new outing. I'm eager to see his skills as a director improve, his eye mature, and his ability to inspire only the best performances from his actors to develop and grow.

I say all of this because Aaron Sorkin's dialogue is akin to his contemporary David Mamet's and, yes, even Shakespeare's. His words are, like music, painstakingly arranged and meticulously scripted. They do not just offer themselves to you, and it isn't enough - not nearly enough - to simply recite what's on the page. No. Sorkin's dialogue is not for the faint of heart. You have to want it.

Have you ever watched someone perform Shakespeare without a complete comprehension of the language? It's excrutiating, like listening to someone read a tongue they don't speak.

                                                                 You thought I forgot about this, but I didn't.

                                                                You thought I forgot about this, but I didn't.

The words are all there, the pronunciations may even be accurate, but the result is a bloodless affair bereft of the proper tone, inflection, weight, and understanding. And while Elba and Chastain both put their considerably well-honed shoulders into the reading, without the experienced hand of a more seasoned director, their best, while grand still, sadly doesn't achieve the caliber of, say, Jeff Daniels' merciless indictment of America's so-called greatness in the pilot episode of The Newsroom, or Jack Nicholson's explosive repudiation of Tom Cruise in the climax of A Few Good Men, or Jesse Eisenberg's glib, hate-filled condescension of his former colleagues the Winklevoss Twins at his deposition in The Social Network, or Michael Fassbender's supremely satisfying final showdown with Seth Rogen in Steve Jobs. The words are there, but the power is lacking, if only slightly.

That said, from a narrative standpoint, Molly's Game is ambitiously constructed, at all times ricocheting back and forth from heavily-narrated, lingo-laden flashback poker games and angry family dinners wherein she and her father vie viciously for each others' respect, to modern day exchanges in Jaffey's office, to the courtroom itself where Molly's future hangs in the balance, and finally to a moving scene on a snow-covered park bench that is easily the most emotionally impactful moment in the film. It is grand cinema that does not presume to talk down to you, and precisely the type of intelligent, confident filmmaking there can never be enough of.

My Rating: 4 out of 5