An Aaron Sorkin script provides a particular breed of viewing pleasure – one caveated by its unreality. His characters’ recognisably sharp repartee is delightful, moving at a clip so rapid as to acknowledge their very scriptedness. Humans do not converse like this, so wittily and snappily; proponents might argue that Sorkin’s worlds are hyper-realities, a heightened and stylized vision of how power brokers operate. Molly’s Game, not just written by him also his directorial debut, showcases his limitations neatly alongside his strengths.
Jessica Chastain plays real-world ‘poker princess’ Molly Bloom, narrating the rise and fall of her high-rolling gaming setup. An aspirant Olympian in her early life, Molly aimlessly drifts in LA in her early twenties, unwilling to commit to law school. She falls into backroom poker by accident, and quickly realises that her organisational talents lend themselves to this world. Before long she is running games for the rich and famous of Hollywood and New York.
Sorkin’s script jumps us around between timelines, the principle two being those of Molly’s poker empire’s heyday, alongside a court case she fights years later, accused of aiding abetting mob money laundering. She rakes over her story for the benefit of her lawyer Charlie, an able Idris Elba; a glowering Kevin Costner is her distant father. Other than these two, the principles are her poker players, pseudonymised and gregarious. From affable drunks to hopeless losers and implicitly A-list actors, they run the gamut and deal out a number of good-natured cameos. Michael Cera in particular clearly relishes the chance to undermine his good image.
Molly herself is, rightly, the centre of this story and its film, and Sorkin seems to have been so impressed by his subject as to near-deify her. Her composure is supreme, her intellect frightening, and her nous peerless. She also, for purely businesses reasons, quickly comes to embody glamour, all plunging dresses and glittering jewels. Yet the politics of Molly’s Game do not leave this a simple expression of female power; Molly is repeatedly and sometimes violently mistreated by men, those she trusts and doesn’t alike. Their behaviour is foul, and the film signals it as such, yet Molly’s collected persona doesn’t lend itself to revenge or comeuppance. Moral vindication, yes, but this does little to conquer the traumas visited on her.
The film’s concluding scenes offer up a number of trite answers to this question of misogyny and its place in the upper echelons of society, from ridiculous cod psychology from a supposedly expert source to legal satisfaction. Yet it feels as though Sorkin has bitten off more than he can chew – or, at least, more than he can neatly masticate. Instead he begins to reach for cliche, and so loses his sparkle somewhat. The lines are still great in isolation, but the whole doesn’t satisfy.
If Sorkin continues to direct, it will be interesting to see how he evolves his tone and vision. His scripts, one senses, are not likely to deviate much. Molly’s Game is an encouraging start, but as so much of his work has demonstrated, has a certain surreality that doesn’t serve it well in the long run.