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‘Molly’s Game’ Is a Ridiculous but Riveting Poker Drama

It’s verbose, superficial, convoluted, and addictively watchable. In other words, it’s another Aaron Sorkin project.

STXfilms/Ringer illustration

Is it true that if sharks stop swimming, they die? I wouldn’t know without consulting Google—but I bet Aaron Sorkin’s characters know that kind of thing offhand. A Sorkin character would drop this factoid mid-argument as a neat metaphor for their own unbearable persistence: “Sharks never quit. They are biologically incapable of ever quitting. And guess what: I’m a shark.” Or something like that. But riddle me this: If an Aaron Sorkin character stopped talking, would they, like the immobilized shark, just drop dead? The most annoying thing about the Aaron Sorkin Extended Universe—which is also, somehow, the most pleasurable—is that it’s populated by people who mouth off like their lives depend on it, wrapping themselves up in a glossy rhetorical rigamarole that, in Sorkin’s world, counts as a personality. If it’s a defense mechanism, all they’re defending themselves against, much of the time, is good art.

But that’s exactly why I kind of love to watch. We don’t always pile Sorkin’s projects in with the humbler varieties of trash, your soapy melodramas and forgettably grimy crime movies, because Sorkin so often takes on lofty subjects, like, say, the principles of our democratic institutions. His projects don’t seem like trash because his characters, like the scripts they’re trapped in, are so eager to hold us, and each other, hostage to their smarts. But binge-worthy trash—not high art—is Sorkin’s speciality, whatever his ambitions. And his ridiculous but addictively watchable new movie Molly’s Game, starring Jessica Chastain, is the latest case in point. It’s the first film Sorkin both wrote and directed. Whether it’s good or not is frankly a lot less important to me than the fact that I watched it twice and was rapt both times, rolling my eyes through the combined four-plus hours of Sorkinisms yet completely unable to walk out or turn it off. That counts for something.

The movie is based on the 2014 tell-all Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World, written by former “poker princess” Molly Bloom (Chastain, in the movie), an ex-competitive skier who worked her way up from being a cocktail waitress with dreams of going to law school to being the organizer of hyper-exclusive weekly poker tournaments in New York and L.A. This was a scene that attracted the likes of Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, Macaulay Culkin, and their ilk, which is undoubtedly one reason she became an object of public fascination. So far as Sorkin’s movie is concerned, however, Molly—not the company she kept—is the real point of interest. With Chastain by his side, and a supporting cast that includes Idris Elba (as Molly’s attorney), Kevin Costner (as her father), Michael Cera (playing an approximation of Tobey Maguire), and other familiar faces (Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Joe Keery of Stranger Things), Sorkin spins a tale of a woman who has nothing going for her but her honor.

When we meet Molly, she’s just been indicted, alongside 33 of her former players, for her involvement in the tournaments. The real target seems to be the Russian mob, but somehow, all roads seem to lead back to her. In order to get her lawyer to understand how that happened, Molly takes us back to the beginning: not only to the assistant job with a Hollywood flunkie that became a secondary career in running underground poker games for Tinseltown’s spoiled rich boys, but also to the childhood spent trying to please a dominating, hard-to-please, psychologist father. The entire movie is premised on Molly having to prove herself, which is a good lane for Sorkin, who loves to back characters into a corner only to make us understand how they might think, scheme, and most of all, talk their way out of it.

And talk, Molly does—somewhat ironically. The reason Molly’s backed into a corner in the first place is that she won’t sing to the authorities. She refuses to spill everything she knows about her former players to the FBI, and for awhile, she even refuses to let her lawyer, who was reluctant to take her on in the first place, have access to everything he might need to build a good case. But she spills it all to us, her captive audience, via an unceasing voiceover, incessantly talking us through her life story via a convoluted but easy-to-follow matrix of flashbacks, factoids, passionate arguments, drug binges, and every other narrative device Sorkin can think of. You want needless poker jargon? He’s got it. You want a heroine who can cite legal statutes and literary references on a whim to make arguments with her lawyer even more exhaustingly circular and hyper-literate than they were already going to be in the first place? He’s got that, too. The funny thing about Sorkin is that he’ll imbue a character like Molly with mile-a-minute intellectual bravado—best believe she’s aware of the fact that her namesake is a character from Ulysses—yet also give her PostSecret-worthy voice-overs like, “It was dark and friendless where I was. I felt like I was in a hole so deep I could go fracking.” Fracking? Molly: please relax.

The shit ain’t deep, but the energetic banality of it is still, somehow, kind of thrilling. I had a great time watching Chastain play a woman her lawyer ungenerously calls “the Cinemax version of herself.” She’s ostensibly all artifice, just like this movie, and Sorkin’s attempts to lay on the psychological complexity with a healthy dose of daddy issues does nothing to change that. The pleasure of the endeavor is in watching Chastain aid and abet Sorkin’s efforts to scratch beneath the surface, when really, the surface is the best thing here. I don’t think we’ll be studying the movie as a triumph of cinematic form anytime soon, but it’s also true that Sorkin knows how to stage a riveting confrontation. It’s a joy to watch Chastain and Elba square off, even if I’m inclined to want to watch the whole thing on mute. All the hammy plot mechanics, big acting, and perfect-SAT-Verbal-score dialogue apparently can’t get in the way of that—an accomplishment in its own right, even if the movie doesn’t always seem to know it.