MOLLY’S GAME is the directivational debut of playwright/The West Wing creator/screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (MONEYBALL, STEVE JOBS), and man is it ever Sorkiny. It revolves around the legal defense of a woman who ran an illegal poker ring, so there is law, legal strategy, business procedure and poker all out there needing to be explained and waxed poetic about by fast-talking geniuses constantly on the verge of dropping an anecdote about the 1942 Olympics or the Warren G. Harding administration or some shit that at first sounds like they got sidetracked with trivia but turns out to be a deft analogy to drive home the point they’re trying to make. And the protagonist Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain, MAMA) narrates the shit out of it and skips around in time, talks about her childhood and her Olympic skiing accident and what not. It looks good and the performances are excellent but yeah, dude, a writer’s writerly writer definitely wrote this writing here.
Sorkin seems like a guy who obsesses over some story he read about in a magazine a while back and he won’t fucking shut up about how fascinating it is and you’re like “Okay Aaron, young Hollywood intern stumbles into running high stakes poker game, sounds great Aaron anyway I gotta get going,” but then when he makes the movie you realize he was right, it really was a compelling story when presented exactly as he knew how to present it.
Molly is working as a cocktail waitress for the super-rich when some shitty customer (Jeremy Strong, LINCOLN, ZERO DARK THIRTY, SELMA, THE BIG SHORT, DETROIT) condescendingly offers her a better paying job as his assistant, and during the course of the job he makes her set up a poker game with his big shot Hollywood friends. This is a true story, I thought I remembered hearing Ben Affleck was involved somehow, but nobody is named in the movie. It becomes a regular game with richer people and bigger bets, she teachers herself the game and the business and splits from the boss and tries to keep things technically legal and it grows and gets out of control.
Sorkin is obviously in love with poker, he gets excited about it and wants to tell you about it, like one of those guys that’s really, really, really into a sport you have no interest in but you don’t mind humoring him for a minute. But luckily it’s more a procedural about the setting up of the game than the playing of the game. I have friends and colleagues who enjoy poker, but I don’t have it in me at all. In fact, the movie does a great job of portraying the disgusting side of it, a bunch of gross macho ultra-rich swine getting boners from the sense of power it gives them to carelessly toss around sums of money that would make or break a normal person’s life. It doesn’t seem like they have fun at all, they just like power and domination and status. Or they’re hopeless addicts on the verge of ruining their lives. These movie stars (the characters, not the cast of the movie) – why would artists want to spend all their time with hedge fund managers and real estate developers and shit? These guys don’t even have good taste in being macho – there’s a bit of Guy Fieri vibe to their idea of masculine cool.
I’m not sure whether or not Sorkin thinks those guys are cool, but it doesn’t matter. It works for the movie. I think he was unfairly criticized by some for sidelining the women in THE SOCIAL NETWORK. To me, it reflects the tech-nerd-bro world of the story, and the attitude of this dork who changed the world and became a billionaire (and later destroyed America – stay tuned for SOCIAL NETWORK 2) out of spite for an ex-girlfriend. To me Rooney Mara is the hero of the story for telling him off. But I like that this one is a fierce showcase for a top actress who starts as a babe in a wig selling overpriced liquor to douchebags and rises to the top of a testosterone-and-cigar-smoke tornado. Everyone who bothers to think about her seems to like her, but they see her as an assistant or something, they don’t expect her to take over this world the way she does.
Michael Cera (Chuck Age 8 and 11, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND) plays a Hollywood actor she called “Player X,” who seems to be nice to her at first but turns out to be a sadistic creepo who says he doesn’t actually like poker but loves “ruining lives.” Somehow I correctly guessed that this is based on Toby Maguire. From what I’ve read, he’s portrayed as even more of a piece of shit in Bloom’s book, for example he tries to humiliate her by refusing to pay her unless she barks like a seal in front of his celebrity pals. I really had no idea that the big screen’s first Spider-man is more like The Million Dollar Man Ted DeBiase in real life, but if that’s true it explains alot. When I reviewed Baz Luhrman’s version of THE GREAT GATSBY I had a sudden realization that I don’t really like Maguire in movies. So now there’s a new theory about that: Maybe it’s because he’s a monster trying to play blandly likable regular neighborhood kids. Patrick Bateman pretending he’s Opie.
The cast is great. Idris Elba (GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE) plays her lawyer, who of course is trying to crack the mystery of what makes her tick or some shit (he’s very interested in why she named certain people in the book and not others). Bill Camp (JASON BOURNE) has a great section as a nice player who gets on a bad run and Molly can’t stand to watch and keeps trying to convince him to quit as he digs himself deeper and gets more and more desperate. Kevin Costner (3 DAYS TO KILL) shows up briefly as the man who raised Molly after her spaceship crashed on his farm. I think I’m remembering that right.
And I don’t know about you, but I love Jessica Chastain. She’s good in anything – I’m probly even gonna watch that HUNTSMAN movie she did a couple years back. Not every role needs to be as verbal and dominant and smarty-pantsed as this one, but how often do women get to play characters like this? Not that often, and Chastain rips it apart. As is her tradition.
It’s very much the stylized stage-style conversations and mystery structure you’d expect from Sorkin. And it’s clever in a good way how organically he adapts this book to take place at a time when the book itself already exists and is a major element of the plot. You know, Sorkin has that thing that he does, and he’s usually good at it. I masochistically watched his show about the Saturday Night Live type show, and I’ve heard The Newsroom was even worse, but this here is the good Aaron Sorkin. I did not cringe during this one. So if you’re someone who can enjoy his style, MOLLY’S GAME is a pretty good one.
I wonder if they ever considered doing an all dog remake of ROUNDERS. The DOGS PLAYING POKER i.p. seems like something they’d want to cash in on.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.