With Molly’s Game, his directorial debut, Aaron Sorkin takes his fast-talking sensibility to the big screen, vividly depicting the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an ex-skier who starts a gambling empire at just 26 years old. Bloom hosts elaborate, exclusive poker games for movie stars (Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio) in Los Angeles, then later for Wall Street guys and mobsters in New York City. At first, she’s the ultimate male fantasy: “I’m the woman all of you have always dreamed of. I’m the anti-wife. I encourage your gambling,” she tells one dreamy-eyed player. But the drama inverts once Molly’s game is raided by the feds, and she hires lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to defend her. Throughout, though, it’s all classic Sorkin: depositions, courtroom arguments, and smarty-pants snark.
In other words, Molly’s Game is the most Sorkin-y movie ever; it’s what would happen if Erin Brockovich and Gone Girl started gossiping in an elevator on their way up to The Devil Wears Prada’s penthouse for drinks. (Sorkin even went to 1Oak to nail the movie’s only club scene.) Sorkin’s trademarks run through all his work, from The West Wing to Moneyball, and his fingerprints are all over Molly’s Game. Below, we’ve broken down the most Aaron Sorkin-y things about the movie.
1. Daddy issues inside daddy issues inside daddy issues.
In an Aaron Sorkin script, you either die resenting your father, or you live long enough to become your resented father. Daddy issues — anger, shame, that desperate relay race for approval — are the central emotional conflicts in nearly every one of Sorkin’s plots. Steve Jobs was estranged from his daughter until he created the device to put a thousand songs in her pocket. On The West Wing, Toby’s father was in organized crime, and Leo’s father was an alcoholic who killed himself. In A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise plays the son of an attorney general, afraid to commit to a case if it meant not measuring up to his father’s success.
In Molly’s Game, it’s all about the daddy-daughter issues: Even though she was a world-class athlete, teenage Molly — seen in flashbacks — was quite the surly high-schooler. She’d challenge her psychologist father (Kevin Costner) at the dinner table over Freud, growl insults under her breath, and there’s more than one mention of the time she ran his car directly into a McDonald’s. Even as an adult, Molly resents her father for pushing her so hard in sports, and for caring more about her brothers’ athletic achievements than her own.
There’s another layer to her daddy issues, too (although, since Kevin Costner is playing Molly’s father, they could just as easily be called zaddy issues): Molly loves her father, but loathes him for cheating on her mother and their family. Is her desperation for controlling powerful men related to her anger over her parents’ broken marriage? It’s a classic Sorkin analysis, and late in the film, Molly shares her own understanding of their conflict: The dissolution of her parents marriage made it hard for her to trust, and the glitzy underworld just felt safer.
2. Snarky digs at celebrity gossip.
Aaron Sorkin has a legendary distaste for celebrity gossip; there’s not enough time for Aaron Sorkin and his acolytes to keep up with smarmy goss between their scheduled rereadings of Don Quixote. Remember Will McAvoy’s lecture to a female gossip columnist during The Newsroom’s (brilliant? despicable?) run: “I’m just saying that what you do is a really bad form of pollution that makes us dumber and meaner and is destroying civilization,” he sneered. So, no, Aaron Sorkin is not listening to Who Weekly, decoding blind items, or reading the the Cut’s gossip column to double-check the status of Ben Affleck and Lindsay Shookus.
Molly’s Game doesn’t get quite so highfalutin’ with its criticism; it will only lightly shame you into minimizing that Lainey Gossip tab. The tabloids crown Bloom Hollywood’s “poker princess,” but she wants no part of the celeb gossip mill. Even as her lawyer pushes her to name names to help her legal case, Molly’s refuses to become further tabloid fodder. “I have dirt. I have dish. I have gossip,” Molly explains to her attorney. “So my value to the prosecution is exactly the same as it is to Hollywood: I am here to ensure the New York Post covers the trial. I’m here to sell tickets.” Later, she walks away from big-money book deals for a more modest proposal because she’s unwilling to say who did what where. And even then, she only names celebrities (Maguire, DiCaprio, Affleck, Todd Phillips) already leaked in a previous deposition; in the movie, Maguire’s character, played by Michael Cera, is referred to as “Player X.”
3. “Do you know what the center of gravity smells like?”
This might sound like something uttered by Alexa or Siri, but I promise you this: A real human in Molly’s Game (Molly) very wistfully posits this question to another real human in Molly’s Game (Charlie). Is there anything more inexplicably Aaron Sorkin than rattling off a random factoid to prove that you have, in fact, used Google and went to a good school?
4. Random literary references.
Sorkin loves a literary reference. These references almost never come during an academic scene, or coupled with a recommendation of some kind. They’re dropped in the middle of a conversation, usually one that’s tense. One character makes the reference, the other continues the unrelated conversation as if it’s a totally normal move to quote books in the middle of an argument. Do any of us real humans actually insert these classic works into everyday conversation, in between Vanderpump Rules recaps and New York Times push alerts? No matter. They’re a shorthand that boosts Sorkin’s writing into some quasi-academic, intellectual sphere.
In The West Wing, it was “Gather ye rosebuds where ye may,” which means … something along the lines of “Let’s enjoy an America that won’t elect Donald Trump.” (A loose interpretation.) In The American President, it was Dr. Seuss. The Newsroom name-dropped Don Quixote references in every other scene. In Molly’s Game, it’s Ulysses and Arthur Miller.
Sorkin finds a way to shoehorn in the classic James Joyce joint when a player (Chris O’Dowd — an actual Irishman!) mentions the Joyce connection to Molly as evidence of her secret Irish heritage. (Bloom says she’s a Russian Jew.) Later, Molly explains to her lawyer why she’s willing to face jail time and financial penalties instead of just handing over her hard drives — chock-full of that sweet, sweet gossip about organized crime, Wall Street, and Hollywood — to the feds: “Because it’s my name!” Molly shouts. “Because I cannot ever have another!” Charlie smiles incredulously. “Now you read The Crucible?” he asks. Yeah, she passed freshman-year Language Arts.
5. American exceptionalism.
Sorkin believes in America, and his characters do too, even if they pretend otherwise. Sorkin’s characters are obsessed with the system, even when they shirk it: His politicians love government, his pundits love politicians, his modest tech bros want to get into Harvard’s best final club. In Molly’s Game, Molly only moves to Los Angeles because she wants a break before law school; she likes the law and understands it, and can recognize when she’s being screwed over by the government. “If you’re saying that everything that happens from the moment you’re arrested is designed to persuade you to plead guilty, you are correct,” Charlie says, after Molly explains the unfair circumstances of her case: Her gambling ring was legal until she started taking a rake late in her tenure; she didn’t know anything about her players’ mob ties until a dozen agents armed with automatic weapons raided her apartment. Even after her accounts are frozen and she’s given just days to find a lawyer willing to represent her, she still plays ball and pleads guilty on principle.
And yet, by the end of Molly’s Game, Molly’s still a whip-smart would-be law student at heart. For her final court appearance, she swaps her usual sheath dress and stiletto uniform for a sweater set and pearls. Even when the warped criminal-justice system was wrecking her life, Molly dressed conservatively, signaling how high she held this process in her esteem: As costume designer Susan Lyall told Vulture, “that was her version of looking respectful of the law.”
6. The walk and talk.
The biggie. Has Aaron Sorkin ever walked without talking, or talked without walking? An occupational hazard of writing talky scripts about people in non-glamorous industries (journalism, tech, government) is that the visuals can get stale quick. A walk and talk — across a newsroom, or to and from the Oval Office — adds some flair.
In most of Molly’s Game, Chastain is trapped behind a bar or desk, carefully eyeing her game. Blink and you’ll miss it, but for all its hotel suites and poker tables, Molly’s Game does feature at least one of Sorkin’s most infamous signature moves. When Molly arrives to Charlie’s office to talk over their case, they pull a walk and talk past a few conference rooms into his office. It’s not as long as the ones Sorkin pulled off on television, but we’ll take it.