Good magicians never reveal their secrets. At the same time, folks notice most magicians change up their routine and don’t bankroll their entire career with a single act of illusion. If David Copperfield was headlining shows still by making the Statue of Liberty disappear, audiences would not only be bored but would probably have a lot of insight into how the trick was done. Aaron Sorkin has been working his magic for movies and television for decades. I realized with his new film “Molly’s Game,” his act hasn’t changed.
Sorkin has a reputation for crafting sharp dialogue. Characters in an Aaron Sorkin joint tend to be verbose and have a healthy understanding of the English language. There’s a rhythm and cadence to the conversations in a Sorkin script. Readers might remember the endless “walk-and-talk” style of the “West Wing.” Everybody was perfectly in sync, practically starting and ending each other’s sentences. There was a novelty to Sorkin’s style because there was a time when it was fresh and interesting. That feels like ages ago. “Molly’s Game” sees the popular and prolific writer take a stab at directing. The end result is an entertaining but painfully overcooked piece of gristle.
Meet Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a typical well-educated, drop-dead gorgeous Olympic-class skier. After an accident which derails her athletic endeavors, she struggles to figure out what’s next. Eventually, she finds a natural skill for running card games. She’s able to attract a swarthy clientele made up of Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes and businessmen with deep pockets. It’s easy to see why guys would be charmed by Molly. She’s smart, gorgeous and doesn’t put up with their shit.
Running illegal poker games comes with a certain degree of risk—especially if one has a well-defined moral compass and empathy for habitual gamblers who throw their entire lives away with the kind of reckless abandon usually reserved for obsessive-compulsive meth addicts. Molly is driven and wants to succeed, which sometimes means ignoring her God-given common sense and bringing in players from the Russian mob. Eventually, Molly’s luck runs out. The government ends up arresting her, taking her money and threatening to jail her.
Like a lot of Sorkin scripts, the movie moves back and forth between present day and Molly’s more colorful past. We meet Molly as her life is spinning out of control. The government is coming after her and she needs legal help. Enter Charles Jaffey (Idris Elba), a high-priced attorney who thinks Molly is little more than a fame-seeking felon. Through the course of the film, he realizes she is willing to throw away her own life to protect all the players who frequented her nightly game.
There’s a somewhat interesting true story buried in a whole lot of bullshit. Sorkin takes Molly Bloom’s tale and runs it through the Hollywood cliché filter. So much of the movie feels fabricated. Sorkin’s material isn’t really suited for every actor. There are performers who can take his dialogue and make it sing, like Bradley Whitford, Allison Janney or Jesse Eisenberg. Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain never achieve a level of believability while spewing out Sorkin’s operatic prose. There’s a few scenes where the writing is so heavy-handed I couldn’t help but chuckle or roll my eyes. I kept wanting to scream: “Real people don’t talk like this!” There’s a couple of lines that are so bad, I audibly groaned. I’m not sure if any actor or actress could have landed a clunker like, “I’m 12 hours away from a degree in astronomy—and I didn’t even know I was enrolled.”
There’s a moment near the end of the film where Molly is waiting to find out whether she’ll be sent to federal prison. The judge goes into some rant about how Molly’s crimes pale in comparison to the white-collar crimes happening on Wall Street. It was like some strange ad-lib where the actor goes off-book to share his personal political views on the ills of greed. I think the goal was to make Chastain feel formidable, but a lot of her performance feels like something out of a daytime soap opera.
The biggest problem with “Molly’s Game” is the monochromatic palette Sorkin paints with. His portrait of Molly Bloom is plain and lacks depth.