Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly’s Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it’s almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it’s based on a true story.
Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) was trained to be an Olympic skier by her father Larry (Kevin Costner). It was just about all she knew: “I spent sixteen years chasing winter.” He’s the kind of punishing sports dad who doesn’t let a little thing like rapid-onset scoliosis slow down her training regimen. The rapid-fire biographical montage that opens the movie is narrated by Molly with the kind of clipped, smart-ass tone that signals a wholly different kind of story is around the corner.
An accident knocked Molly out of the Olympics but not out of trying to be a champion, at least at something. Casting around for something to do, she leaves the hovering, drill-sergeant mentoring of her father and sets out for L.A., where she ends up working as assistant to dodgy and abusive real estate schemer Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong). A vaguely-plugged Hollywood type, Dean hosts a poker game for various celebrities and hangers-on at the “Cobra Lounge”—a clear nod to the Viper Room; one of many fig-leaves Bloom drapes over her narrative for legal reasons. Quickly realizing that his guys are drawn to Molly’s looks and smarts, Dean puts her in charge of the game.
But turning a character like Molly, with her rapier wit and bit-champing ambition, into a second-fiddle only allowed to work for tips, isn’t meant to last. She strikes out on her own, setting the stage for that FBI arrest we saw in a flash-forward at the start. The story rapidly accelerates like a bullet train, flipping back and forth from Molly’s light-speed arc as Hollywood poker high-roller doyenne to her after-the-fall consultations with her initially tentative but later intrigued defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). Sorkin lavishes detail on these scenes, with Molly describing her strategy for making these men (and all the players are men) want to come into her rented hotel rooms with the fancy liquor and cigars and blow millions of dollars in a night. Secondary players like the unnamed actor “Player X” (Michael Cera) who helps her rope in other players and the gambling junkie Harlan (Bill Camp) move in and out of Molly’s orbit like phantoms who can either help her win big or possibly sell her out to the authorities.
These crash-and-burn sequences of big wins and killer losses are shot by Sorkin —doing a credible job in his first outing as a film director—with all the expected quick zooms, whip pans, handy on-screen infographics, and quick-draw patter for the non-poker addicts in the audience. What keeps it from turning into some Rounders knock-off is Molly’s take on her persona. Chatty but stern, she gives these thrill-seeking boys playing at manhood a simulacra of sexy sophistication. Pancaked with makeup and squeezed into shimmery cocktail dresses, she presents them with “the Cinemax version of myself”. Her tone in these scenes is dry and cynical about the persona she must inhabit in order to be allowed into this world.
That changes once things fall apart and she realizes just how rigged the game is against women like her who dare to strike out on their own. Like Sorkin’s The Social Network and Steve Jobs, the story tracks an Icarus-like ascension of an A-grade ambition artist in the corridors of money and power followed by a dark reckoning.
The further that Molly’s Game pushes into the trial phase of her rise-and-fall-and-fall story, the more it emphasizes her vulnerability. That’s also where Sorkin’s script becomes more problematic in its treatment of Molly. Starting off as the story of an independent woman who breaks free of her domineering father, it keeps circling back to a series of nervy tête-à-têtes with Charlie, who is just about the only character in the movie able to keep up with her thoroughbred debater’s intellect. Functioning as both lawyer and involuntary therapist as they gear up for a David-and-Goliath trial—”J. Edgar Hoover didn’t have this much shit on Bobby,” Charlie says, marveling at the resources the government devotes to bringing down the operator of an illegal poker game—Charlie turns into an unfortunate Sorkin standby. He becomes the wise man of the world, intrigued and exasperated by the brilliant high-strung woman who can’t get out of her own head. When Larry raises his head later in the movie to provide some unexpected support for the daughter he had once cast out it’s at once refreshing to see these men having Molly’s back but also frustrating that the movie can’t find room for at least one additional female character of note.
But for the unwelcome third-act introduction of this backhanded paternalism, Molly’s Game is a superb late-year treat. Twist-filled and snappy, it has just enough interest in this thrill-seeking world and the proper amount of contempt for the sexist playground inhabited by the men of wealth Molly manipulates for a living. When Molly says “I was tired of living in the frat house I’d built for degenerates,” she hasn’t realized that she’s about to step into a much larger frat house. This one won’t be nearly so easy to escape and its inhabitants don’t take kindly to smart, spiky women like her.