MOLLY’S GAME (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language, drug content, and some violence)
Released:  December 22, 2017 limited; January 5, 2018 wide
Runtime: 140 minutes
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Samantha Isler

As a screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) relies on some of the worst crutches there are, but he leans into them – aggressively – and transforms them into strengths.

Sorkin doubles down on his singular voice in his long-awaited directorial debut Molly’s Game, a true story biopic driven by such an adrenaline rush that it feels like the movie snorted a line of cocaine.

Fitting, as this is about addictions, but primarily a specific one: gambling. It tracks the meteoric “only in America” rise of Molly Bloom, a former Olympic skier who, for about a decade, ran the highest stakes poker game in the world (public or private, legal or illegal). It’s a perfect story for Sorkin to sink his idiosyncrasies into because it embodies his M.O.: go big or go home.

Sorkin loves exploring morality in conflict, but it’s much more interesting (and entertaining) when he does it with ignoble characters rather than noble ones. Bloom is a particularly intriguing mix of the two, striving to operate a legal enterprise (which she mostly succeeds at) while employing reputable ethics towards her clientele, all the while flirting with that larceny line before eventually crossing it, yet even then for principled reasons.

For a character study it’s a fascinating thrill ride, dramatizing Bloom’s rise and fall within the framework of the aftermath legal fight, but it’s as much about the people in that world, too, the gamblers and the addicts. The high rollers – among them A-list actors, billionaires, tycoons, Wall Streeters, Mideast Royalty, and more – that can be on their game for months only to have one night (or one hand!) shatter their confidence and ego, sending them into a devastating downward spiral.

Sorkin loves to explain things, and loves to write people explaining them. It’s clearly a reason he was attracted to Molly’s story. There’s so much to unpack here, from the trajectory of Bloom’s life to the minutia of poker, the mindset of those who play it at the highest levels, and how Bloom manages it all on an insane tightrope that leaves her financially and legally exposed.

This trait of overexplaining is one of the many tactics that cripple many screenplays, even good ones, but that Sorkin exalts to a rhythmic art. There’s a lot of voice-over, most of his conversations are at least half-exposition, and it’s all delivered in a vomitus rapid fire of information. But rather than getting bogged down, Sorkin uses it like fuel.

To him, more words are like more coal on the fire of a steaming locomotive, and they’re smart words about big complex ideas. Somehow, like a grammar guru word wizard, Sorkin articulates it all in a very accessible way that still elevates our intellect rather than talking down to our ignorance.

Sorkin can also be the king of contrivance, manufacturing high drama and deft comedy in ways that don’t even come close to reality, but he has such a confident vision of how they should unfold and the tone they should strike. This is especially true when otherwise sensible characters make big – though not rash – decisions in the heat of the moment, contradicting previous prudence (a decision that Bloom’s lawyer makes in the first courtroom scene comes to mind), but dammit if it’s not completely inspiring.

Perhaps the biggest writing sin that Sorkin completely absolves himself from (at least here) is how he writes every character essentially the same, with almost exactly the same voice – that voice being his.

He doesn’t write distinct characters, with their own thoughts and temperaments and ways of seeing the world; he makes each character a version of himself, giving them the words he would say (and how he would say them) if he were them in their situations. They are not their own; they’re Sorkin’s mouthpieces.

But that’s why actor’s love acting in his stories, saying his words, with his voice. Who wouldn’t want to talk like Sorkin does? (Only Quentin Tarantino elicits the same appeal.) And rather than coming off as ciphers for pretentious Author Intrusion (again, at least this time), Sorkin’s stroke of genius is in how he casts and directs.

He’s assembled a tour-de-force ensemble with the galvanizing Jessica Chastain leading the charge. My God she owns the screen in a performance that grabs you by the lapels, but also swings for the emotional fences with courage and fragility.

Idris Elba crushes it, too, as Bloom’s cautious yet latently-crusading lawyer, while Kevin Costner gets Oscar buzz for one late key scene. Michael Cera also carries a dry swagger impressively well and then laces it with a cruel streak; his Player X is allegedly Tobey Maguire in real life. Even Tulsa-born Samantha Isler plays the teenage Molly as a genetic clone of Chastain’s voice, gestures, looks, and cadences.

Sorkin is sly with sleight of hand, too, presenting an opening Olympic ski sequence as superfluous before bringing it back around as a linchpin metaphor. He can’t even avoid one of his patented go-to’s: invoking mythology (Greek, in this case). But then, that’s the bar he aspires to, unapologetically.

Films like Molly’s Game, ones that explore the most extreme forms of capitalist excess but indict the impulses of the players even more than the game, are what Sorkin does best – especially when his flawed characters retain their last (and perhaps only) integrity at all costs. His style may be modern, but his themes are mythic.

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