Aaron Sorkin makes his feature-film directorial debut with Molly’s Game, based on the autobiography of a crazy-high-stakes poker impresario named Molly Bloom. Don’t expect lengthy, searching pauses for the camera to explore the milieu — the movie is narrated to within an inch of its life. Sorkin plainly likes the blending of Bloom’s wry, blunt voice and his own, so Molly (Jessica Chastain) chatters away on the soundtrack, pausing only to chatter away in the flesh. She begins by recounting her teenage career as an Olympics-class skier, which allows Sorkin to bombard us with montage and flashbacks, along with plenty of minutiae about how things work on the slopes. “None of this [skiing stuff] has anything to do with poker,” she says — which gets a laugh. But of course it does. It’s both a fake-out and a setup for what follows. In a Sorkin movie, everything is purposeful. Words and information come at you so quickly, and with such precision, that you almost forget about what’s missing.
There’s a lot missing in Molly’s Game, especially regarding its protagonist’s personal relationships. But what’s there is dandy. From the get-go, Sorkin puts you in a mood to hear actors talk very fast, and Chastain and Idris Elba (as her straight-arrow lawyer) are virtuoso very-fast talkers — they sound as if the words whizzing out of their mouths are coming from their heads. Sorkin is often lampooned for his walking-and-talking schtick, but what he’s best at is depicting racing minds.
The opening dramatic hook is that Molly (who makes sure we don’t confuse her with the character from Ulysses, as if) falls from grace with her demanding psychologist father (Kevin Costner) — literally, in the sense that an errant frozen twig ends her skiing career with a ghastly crunch and she no longer feels powerful enough to compete in his eyes with her two accomplished brothers. Although she has been accepted to law school, poker is the quickest route to powerful men in finance and show business — men who’ll bet ungodly amounts of money the instant they sit down.
Molly’s Game has two temporal strands. The first is mainly a series of meetings with her lawyer, who defends her from the FBI after a humiliating pre-dawn arrest two years after she stopped running card games. The second is her rise and fall, a story she relays to her lawyer with samplings from her memoir in the mix and moments when she seems to be talking to us, the viewers. But the story always flows. It feels seamless even when it shouldn’t because flow is Sorkin’s thing. He doesn’t trust pauses — I suspect he’s afraid he’ll lose us if he takes his foot off the gas.
Sorkin has always loved players, and in this case, he has actual ones to profile. Molly talks about them, of course — their worth, their styles of poker — while Sorkin puts their cards on the screen so she can tell us what they have in their hands and what they should or shouldn’t do. They are a colorful bunch. Michael Cera dominates the first flashbacks as a hot-shot actor based on Tobey Maguire, among the most scarily dislikable of the memoir’s characters. He tells Molly, “I don’t like playing poker. I like destroying lives.” (Bloom has only nice things to say about another regular, Ben Affleck, whom she describes as smart and kind. I mention this because Affleck often conveys shiftiness offscreen while Maguire seems the soul of affability. How little we really know.) Molly is hilarious on “Bad Brad” (Brian d’Arcy James), a hedge-fund manager who seems serenely untroubled by his own ineptitude, and various trust-funders who plead poverty when they can’t pay back the house. The most intense and wrenching poker sequence centers on a man named Harlan who plays with care and a certain emotional detachment — until the night he gets rattled by a fluke and turns reckless and desperate. He’s played by Bill Camp in an anguished interior performance that speaks volumes.
Some of the players fall in love with Molly, but she resists their propositions and proposals. At the same time, she’s not indifferent. The emotional core of Molly’s Game — what makes the lawyer take her case and become passionate in her defense — is that she doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. She won’t send “muscle” to call in debts. She refuses to name names and turn over emails that might get her off the hook with the FBI. She wrote about Maguire, Affleck, and a few others because, she says, they’d already been publicly identified in an earlier FBI investigation. Otherwise, she keeps their identities cloaked. She will not sully her name. The lawyer’s daughter is reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and Molly draws on John Proctor’s declaration that his name is all he has and he will not sully it.
Sorkin’s depiction of Molly Bloom’s nobility strikes me as sentimental and maybe a little suspect. But you know what? I choose to buy it. What Bloom in her memoir and Sorkin (phenomenally) onscreen suggest is that for all sorts of personal reasons (some reaching back to childhood), a person can find herself or himself in an ugly, messy business but maintain a core of decency. Molly comes to have power over powerful men and takes advantage of them (using her knowledge of male psychology and her physical attractiveness) without victimizing them. Felon or not, she’s a viable role model.
Her attractiveness does open a gap. She dresses in low-cut, often short dresses because she knows that’s what her players like. She’s aware of her magnetism. But if she had any romances over the decades, Sorkin keeps them offscreen. More frustrating, he doesn’t acknowledge the lack, as if suggesting that she’s keeping herself “pure” for the game.
And then there’s the Daddy Thing, harkening back to Sorkin’s script for Steve Jobs — which ended up being more about Sorkin’s own paternal insecurities than Jobs’s. In her narration, Molly says she got into a habit as a teen of provoking her father, and there’s a flashback in which she verbally tussles with him over Freud. But Sorkin is essentially a Freudian, I think. He brings her dad back into the movie to propose theories about her that she scoffs at but takes hard. There’s a lulu of a repressed memory in there, too, which I’m not sure the movie needs. Not sure but not not-sure: I’m a Freudian, too.
Molly’s Game is, needless to say, a terrific pedestal for Chastain — much better than the clunky Miss Sloane, in which she overdid the brittleness. Molly Bloom evokes the tension in the actress between hard and soft, between self-protective frostiness (especially around domineering men) and the kind of empathy that can’t be suppressed. (As the teenage Molly, Samantha Isler matches up beautifully with her.) Everything clicks in Chastain’s scenes with Elba, whose lawyer can’t keep from getting close to her, leaning in to try to discern if she’s for real under the mask — the performance building to a climactic peroration to prosecutors that got a hand from the world-premiere audience at the Toronto Film Festival. Molly’s Game isn’t the deepest movie you’ll see, but it’s both finely tuned and big-hearted. It’s a rouser.