Molly’s Game is the fifth film adaptation of a true story to be written by Aaron Sorkin and marks his first time sitting in the director’s chair.
Molly Bloom was a promising skier who was forced to retire early after a horrific crash at the Olympic Qualifiers. She decides to take a year out in Los Angeles before attending Harvard Law School. In LA she works as a cocktail waitress before working as the assistant for a sleazy real estate agent (Jeremy Strong). This assistance job starts her journey to become the ‘Poker Princess’ and leads to her rubbing shoulders with movie stars, businessmen and gangster and puts her on a collision course with the FBI.
Ever since his early days as a writer Sorkin has been seen as the master of dialogue, and he often injects academic references and political subject matter. He also attempts to psycho-analysis his subjects: in The Social Network Mark Zuckerberg was dumped by a girl, and he created Facebook out of spite, in Moneyball Billy Beane was failed by the baseball scouting system as a player, so he set out to change the system when he became a general manager, and the focus of Steve Jobs was on the Apple co-founders’ relationship with his illegitimate daughter. Molly’s Game is no different and Sorkin looks at what drives this talented, intelligent yet troubled woman.
In Molly’s case, she is shown to be a intelligent and determined young woman. She was shaped by her overbearing father (Kevin Costner), a psychology professor who demands physical and academic excellence. This leads to Molly’s drive for success – if she is told she can’t do something she’ll do everything in her power to prove them wrong. But Molly is also resentful of her father and she’s the rebel of the family. She had an attitude that she has to prove herself whilst also to say ‘screw you’ to her father. Even after her success as a gambling kingpin she still longs for her life as an athlete and wonders what her life could be as a lawyer. Basically, Molly Bloom was turned into a typical Sorkin character.
Structurally Molly’s Game is similar to The Social Network. Both films focus on the rise of their characters and the people they cross along the way and have a framing storyline about the main character’s legal problems. In Molly’s case, she is broke and pressured by the prosecution to turn into a state witness. Like with The Social Network the two storylines in Molly’s Game slowly converge.
Molly’s Game also has a Goodfellas style narrative, a rise-and-fall story with all the up-and-downs its entails. Molly Bloom was working in a legally gray area, and she could have turned into a gangster if she wanted to. She states she holds a lot of her players’ debt and she could collect if she wanted to and she had access to a lot of powerful people. The film goes to great lengths to show Molly having some morals: she is shown to be unwilling to exploit bad players for too long, and she refuses to use violence to collect debts. Molly’s intelligence means she doesn’t need to.
Also like Goodfellas and other films that have copied the Scorsese formula, Molly’s Game has a heavy reliance on voiceover. This was done to explain the details of freestyle skiing, poker and all its terminology and introducing new characters. It is so dense that’s sometimes hard to keep up with – not helped by Sorkin’s need to show how knowledgeable he is.
Sorkin also goes to certain lengths to justify the changes that were made to Bloom’s story. The film opens with Molly Bloom saying that changes to names were made because of legal reasons. Michael Cera (who I admittedly thought was Jesse Eisenberg at first) plays a Hollywood star only known as Player X because he was a composite character based on real actors – so not a good idea to burn bridges. One scene Molly’s boss uses the term ‘poor person bagels,’ but her lawyer (Idris Elba) believed he used a more offensive term.
Before Sorkin was a screenwriter, he worked as a playwright – hence his love for fast, back-and-forth dialogue. Films like The Social Network and Steve Jobs had excellent directors to make them visually engaging. Sorkin had to compete with David Fincher and Danny Boyle – and he does it. Molly’s Game started with an impressive skiing sequence and Molly getting arrested by the FBI. Sorkin also made the poker sequences compelling due to the various outcomes that could happen – using card graphics to do so.
Molly’s Game had a great cast, but it was Jessica Chastain’s show. Chastain is an obviously talented actress, and she gives the role of Molly Bloom her all. Chastain gave the dialogue the authenticity it needed, and she had the necessary range. She has an impressive filmography, and her performance in Molly’s Game is one of her best.
While Sorkin is a great screenwriter he does have one major issue: he likes to show off how smart he is. There are a lot of character backstories being told, literary and political references abounded. Sorkin is also openly political: his biggest TV show was The West Wing. In Molly’s Game Sorkin uses the film as a well for him to make political points about Molly’s treatment by the authorities and the people Molly’s served instead of her crimes. He makes valid points, but it came across as Sorkin trying to educate the audience rather than coming off as natural exchanges.
Sorkin shows promise as a director and he was blessed Jessica Chastain as his leading lady but Molly’s Game doesn’t quite match the highs of The West Wing, The Social Network and Steve Jobs.