Review: Sorkin’s directorial turn captivates, lacks substance

The dialogue excels but the thematic framework falls short in "Molly's Game"

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 1/9/18 12:05am

For some writers, dialogue is lyrical. For others, it is realistic, capturing the rambling cadence of everyday speech. And for still others, it is purely utilitarian: Characters must speak, so they do. But for Aaron Sorkin, dialogue is the beating heart and soul of the enterprise of writing. 

Well, perhaps that’s not quite fair. Sorkin well knows that witty dialogue alone does not a compelling story make. Rather, he revels in clever characters compelled to say clever things. There’s something almost amusing about the fact that so many of the films he has written are based on true stories. The real-life counterparts would be lucky to sound half as intelligent and well-spoken as Sorkin writes his characters.

In his newest film, “Molly’s Game,” Sorkin is behind the camera as well as the script. As far as directorial debuts go, the film isn’t half bad. It’s not great — many have already assessed that Sorkin is a better writer than director — but it’s a captivating two-and-a-half-hour thrill ride that plays like a more tame and conscientious version of “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

When a freak accident ends the competitive skiing career of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), she moves to Los Angeles and more or less stumbles into a room filled with movie stars, renowned athletes and business moguls, all there to play high stakes poker. Bloom recognizes the potential and begins to run her own games. But her rise as the “poker princess” is rapidly followed by her decline when she transforms her legal enterprise into an illegal one. Rather like Sorkin’s “The Social Network,” the film uses a subsequent court case against the FBI to frame the main story, jumping back and forth through time to detail her poker days, the trial proceedings and an altogether useless subplot about her childhood dominated by an overbearing father. 

Unlike “The Social Network,” though, the frame story in “Molly’s Game” isn’t nearly as impactful as it wants to be. It doesn’t lead to anything particularly satisfying, and it is really an excuse for Sorkin to use narration to cram in every iota of Bloom’s backstory that he can fit. Sorkin writes beautifully, and the same holds true for his narration, but he frequently violates the “show don’t tell” maxim of screenwriting, speeding through countless details conveniently explained away with voice-over. A different storytelling tactic might have forced Sorkin to write a tighter and more economical film, cutting out these unnecessary moments. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Sorkin’s struggle in adapting a memoir, a genre that tends to meander through loosely-related anecdotes. However, about 20 minutes should be shaved off this film’s run-time.

In all fairness, the frame story does provide one bright spot: Idris Elba as Bloom’s attorney, Charlie Jaffey. Watching Elba and Chastain verbally spar is a delight. Like caged animals, they circle each other with burning intensity, exchanging quips instead of bites. As these scenes play out, one can practically hear their names being announced for Oscar consideration. Chastain is especially good — like Mark Zuckerberg from “The Social Network,” Bloom is a closed book, unwilling to open up around others. Unlike Zuckerberg, Bloom doesn’t really have an endearing Eduardo Saverin-type character to work off. Chastain thus has to manage a tricky balancing act between sympathetic and aloof. She makes it look easy. 

Moreover, when “Molly’s Game” is detailing the protagonist’s time in the world of poker, it’s genuinely fun. Poker may be the conduit for the film’s plot, but even someone as poker-illiterate as I am can appreciate the stakes in these scenes. We realize that it’s not at all about the cards — it’s about the hubris of the players. In fact, the narration works best not when it’s trying to cover vast swaths of Bloom’s life but when it’s detailing the minutiae of the poker schemes. Although the film, like its protagonist, refrains from naming names, the fact that the players are supposedly movie stars, athletes and mobsters makes the game all the more intriguing. 

That said, the one piece of questionable casting is Michael Cera as Player X, a famous actor whose skill at poker is initially the real magnet for celebrities who attend Bloom’s games. From what I understand, X is based on the likes of Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, and I can completely understand why none of them would want to play the part — X is cast in an unsavory light. Regardless, Cera just isn’t convincing as a swaggering movie star on the same level as the aforementioned. He’s Paulie Bleeker from “Juno” — nerdy and socially awkward and not the sort of person who would draw a crowd to a poker game.

In his review, film critic Peter Travers identified the main theme as “the tribulations of being a woman in a man’s world.” Indeed, the film regularly, and admirably, touches on issues of gender and sexism, often implicitly, occasionally explicitly. Yet, there’s scarcely a woman in the film who is not framed by the camera like a supermodel in a commercial. As admirable as Sorkin’s intent may be, the mixed messages he’s sending make the gender politics a touch unfulfilling. 

Indeed, the film as a whole feels a little unfulfilling. One is left with the question: “So what?” Love it or hate it, “The Social Network” at least has a point beyond learning about the creation of Facebook. It explores the contradictions and ironies in that act of creation — how a website designed for social interaction was initially fueled by toxic, misogynist and anti-social behavior. “Molly’s Game” touches on themes related to power, gender and identity, but none of them really stick. It’s more fun to watch than it is to think about. Once it’s over, you try to close your hand around it but find that it’s just air.