A few months ago, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin was confronted, apparently for the first time, with the fact that Hollywood has a diversity problem. At the time, he asked what he could do to aid the situation, saying that he wanted”to understand what someone like [him] could do” to alleviate the issue. So I went into Molly’s Game, his directorial debut, with that in mind: this was a man who wanted to help. But, quite honestly, if this is what his help looks like, he can keep it.
Molly’s Game has been mediocrely reviewed as a whole and frankly I just can’t figure out why, because there’s almost nothing to recommend to it – it’s not just not good, it’s actively bad. Following the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a high-achieving ex-athlete who turns her considerable skill to running a series of exclusive poker games for the elite men who seek them out, Molly’s Game is told in semi-flashback, picking up as Molly is arrested and turns to Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), the only lawyer in the country she trusts with her case. I understand that Sorkin’s writing style is an acquired taste, but even for those who have grown accustomed to his thinly-veiled soapboxing will find little to defend here: the maniacal pace leaves the entire first hour a stuttering, staggering mess, with an absolute inability to leave well alone when it comes to underlining every single emotional beat with a dry, obvious speech. If you’re into protracted monologues by a comatose Jessica Chastain playing out over lingering shots of cards being laid on to tables, then, shit, have I got the movie for you.
The direction doesn’t fare any better than the script. It’s not often that I notice bad direction; I can disagree with the choices the director makes, but rarely would I actually call a film badly directed as it’s all so subjective. But Molly’s Game looks as though it was shot based on what was hip in 2007, slow-mo, jagged-cut fight scenes and all. It veers between utter blandness and actively downright rubbish.
Perhaps the movie’s biggest crime is wasting a selection of exceptional actors. Chris O’Dowd, as a gloriously pathetic alcoholic loser, comes out unscathed, but everyone else seems to be struggling in the overwritten mire of Sorkin’s script. Jessica Chastain, usually charismatic and watchable, sounds half-asleep for most of her lengthy voiceover segments and even she looks uncommitted to the cleaved-in emotional arc the film attempts to assign to her. Idris Elba is trying his hardest, but his usually subversive charisma (best applied in productions like Luther) doesn’t work with such a straight-laced nothing of a character.
No, that’s not true. The biggest mistake Molly’s Game makes is the fact that it chooses to translate Molly’s story through a bunch of men. There are brief flashes in this movie of what it could have been, when Molly exists outside the men in her life: when she angrily tells a player in one of her games that the only reason men become obsessed with her is because she is the opposite of everything their wives represent, when she shares spiky conversation with the women who work for and with her (which are next to non-existent).
But most of this story, her story, the story that would have been so much better told by her, is tied up in the sticky, grungy, confused stories of the men who float in and out of her life. Idris Elba as her lawyer, Jeremy Strong as her one-time boss, Kevin Costner as her father: the movie inhabits worlds dominated by men but chooses to explore them through the eyes of a woman, and doesn’t really delve in to that contradiction in any meaningful way, leaving Molly feeling like a passive observer to her own life instead of a fully fleshed-out lead character. The emotional climax of the movie comes when her father, a psychologist and the man who pushed Molly to damaging physical and emotional extremes as a child athlete, turns up out of nowhere in the same city as her and informs Molly that actually, she treated him with contempt as a child because she caught him cheating on her mother but Molly doesn’t remember it. And that’s why he had to inflict what many people would consider borderline abuse on her. Molly forgives him, they embrace. We never get to hear from Molly’s mother in any meaningful way, nor what her father’s treatment of her mother did to Molly, how it shaped her as a person.
We don’t get to hear from any of the women in the film, not really, not even Molly – she gets plenty of monologues which underline her ambitions and her driven nature, even these little flashes of the person this film could have let her be once in a while. But it’s not enough, not when the film is named for her and should be her story and front-and-centre her arc. By the time the credits roll, she still feels wispy and underformed, a sliver of a person.
I understand that Aaron Sorkin may have thought he was Doing His Bit by making a movie that ostensibly told the story of a woman. But he didn’t actually do that, not really. No, he told the story of the many men who came in and out of Molly’s life and how they shaped her and what they did to and for her. This movie is called Molly’s Game, but, at the end of the day, it never really feels like her story.
If you enjoyed this review and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon!
By Louise MacGregor