Molly’s Game is an entertaining, quick-paced movie with an outstanding cast and a great script – that just doesn’t know how to end. Tying up all the plot points is hard, but the movie makes an unforced error by introducing a seemingly new element in the final stanza. The main character is a former competitive skier, so you can make your own joke about sticking the landing if you want.
We start with Molly Bloom (the always outstanding Jessica Chastain) being arrested by multiple armed FBI agents in the early hours of the morning. Accused of a variety of crimes, she finds a lawyer, Charlie Jaffey, (the also always outstanding Idris Elba) and begins to recount her story in flashback.
We leap between past and present. We see her childhood as a competitive skier with a pushy father. Her career flounders due to serious injury and misfortune, and she ends up working odd jobs in LA. At one point this includes running an exclusive, underground poker game attended by the rich and powerful. Before long, she has made the game her own. But trouble follows, especially in a game with that much money.
This is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut. He’s the writer of The Social Network and the guy behind The West Wing, along with several other shows that everybody was sure would be as good as The West Wing. It’s hard not to judge the film through the lens of his other work because it has all the same strengths and weaknesses.
Much of the film plays to Sorkin’s strengths. He’s at his best with a good cast spitting out rapid-fire dialogue heavily laden with jargon. As such, the scenes where Molly and Charlie hash out the details of the case, or where Molly and ‘Player X’ (a surprisingly effective Michael Cera, playing against type) talk about poker have the trademark Sorkin zest and the energy.
He’s at his best when the stakes are high, and with thousands of dollars changing hands every second, he’s in his element in a film about poker, especially the casual approach many high level players have to fortunes changing in moments. He extends the metaphor to Molly herself, who never plays but whose journey, constantly pushing herself further and further, mirrors that of a poker player on a bender. Chastain continues her run of excellent performances.
Her story is an amazing one and one that touches on so many themes and ideas: The increasing stratification of the US population, the luck that plays a part in everyone’s life, no matter how talented they are, the informal but very tangible class system of the US, the self-destructive nature of male fantasies, the competitiveness inherent in American culture, the closed off clubs of the wealthy – Molly and her team of beautiful and extremely skilled team of poker hostesses remind us of how easily people assume beautiful women are nothing more than objects.
And all her troubles being nothing more than the government exerting leverage on her is a nice reminder of the potential callousness of law enforcement. There’s so much going on, and it all blends so nicely. Right up until the ending.
Of all the themes and elements, of all the balls in motion, Sorkin chooses to look for an emotional resolution to cap everything off. Part of it I understand. After all, it’s a true story, and lots of the plots simply didn’t have neat ending points. Several characters from the first half vanish from the second and this is not to the film’s detriment. Real life is messy, after all. But emotional resolutions are not Sorkin’s strong suit. It’s evident even within this film, that the ebbs and flows of poker games are illustrated in great detail, while the gambling addiction of several players just kind of happens.
As such, trying to find an emotional climax to Molly’s story doesn’t really work because that’s not what the film has been building to for most of its length. The return of a mostly absent character is a surprise, but at least that character was in the film earlier. The introduction of the emotional riddle of Molly is completely out of nowhere. We understood her already. We’d seen her childhood and had her narrate the film. Spelling it out would be a flaw, but this, with the peculiar emphasis it has, feels like Sorkin trying to fit a message from a different, much neater film – especially a message that is only hinted at obliquely in the rest of the film.
I’m reminded of the early Simpsons episode, ‘Blood Feud.’ It was a typically crowded early Simpsons episode which ended with an amazing exchange:
Bart: Maybe there is no moral, Mom.
Homer: Exactly! It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.
Marge: But it certainly was a memorable few days.
Homer: Amen to that.
Ironic that a TV show understood this better than an acclaimed television writer making his first film.
Trying to force the film into a different shape at the last minute is a bizarre decision that undercuts much of what came before. The rest of the film flows in an organic way, moving from event to event, introducing characters and letting them go the same way life does. There are films that are praised for their dreamlike nature. Molly’s Game nails the feel of someone telling you a story, emphasising particular bits as they remember them. It doesn’t offer judgement or answers. Then the ending feels like a child walked in as the story was being told, and the teller wraps it up as fast as they can. It’s to the otherwise fine film’s detriment. It’s an entertainingly messy story.
Reviewed at Palace Electric