After decades of winning praise as a screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin makes his directorial debut with Molly’s Game, a bold biopic about a resilient and notorious poker entrepreneur. Electric with Sorkin’s signature wit and fronted by Jessica Chastain in a powerhouse performance, the film has a sharp and undeniable charm. Then Sorkin gambles away audience good will with a stupid, ham-fisted ice rink sequence.
In understanding Molly’s Game, it helps to grasp the creative context in which it was written. With The West Wing, A Few Good Men and The Social Network, Sorkin forged a reputation for stirring, rapid-fire banter with an esoteric edge. Then came The Newsroom, an HBO series about a blowhard anchorman, and all the overly emotional, gratingly incompetent women who live to serve him. Think pieces declared Sorkin had a “women problem,” and he responded by suggesting Molly’s Game would make amends for these sexist screenwriting missteps.
To Sorkin’s credit, his heroine, Molly Bloom (Chastain), is no frantic flower who weeps at work or can’t figure out e-mail. She is a fierce, independent, and knows her way around a spreadsheet. Even when battered and broke, Molly does not give her attackers the satisfaction of tears. Once her future is threatened by an FBI investigation, it’s not Molly who will give a bombastic speech to her accusers; it’s her male attorney (Idris Elba). Moreover, Sorkin refuses to sculpt Molly as a standard “strong female character,” who is beautiful and stalwart, but little else. Bloom’s story won’t allow for such sentimental simplicity.
Based on Bloom’s memoir of the same name, Molly’s Game follows the one-time Olympic-class skier from dizzying high slopes, down to the tense dinner table where she bickers with her father, to the back-alley poker rooms of Hollywood’s elite, and the posh hotel rooms of New York’s big games. (Michael Cera puts in a blistering performance as a cocky and cruel movie star. Chris O’Dowd surprises and delights as a self-pitying shmuck.) Scrappy and smart, Molly works her way up from hassled assistant to the glamorous runner of her own high stakes game. Through wins and losses, she is cool and resilient, even when the FBI crashes the party, accusing her of working for the Russian mob. Literally up against the wall, Molly must find a good lawyer, who will not only plead her case, but will do so on her terms. Basically, in one boys club after another–be it poker rooms or courtrooms–Molly nevertheless persists.
Ripe with thwarted ambition, brewing resentments, and dangerous men, Bloom’s story is a fascinating one. Sorkin writes Molly as a meaty role, a brazen broad who flirts every night with breaking the law, but is dedicated to keeping her good name. And Chastain sinks her teeth in ferociously and gleefully. Whether sternly scolding misbehaving players, winsomely winning over new clients, or resolutely facing down her lawyer, Chastain brings a radiant strength and sultry charm that makes its easy–hell even an outright joy–to fall for Molly and her yarn. Even in generous voiceover that explains poker lingo and unspools the secret thoughts behind her enigmatic exterior, Chastain is vivid and thrilling. Then, Elba makes a pitch-perfect scene partner, clashing against her cocky bravado with an intensity that sparks. Together, the two are practically dancing, performing a tenacious tango where the lead keeps switching, but without ever missing a step.
Sadly, Sorkin’s indulgences undermine both Chastain and Bloom. Molly’s Game has a sleek cinematography that cruises through its posh settings and plants firmly on Chastain’s face, relishing not only her beauty but also the crisp crackle she brings to every line of dialogue. Yet it’s not enough for Sorkin to pour Chastain into curve-suffocating cocktail dresses with deeply plunging necklines. (Considering the man cave environment that Molly curates for her clients, these skimpy dresses are warranted.) But the leering shot that travels past a pile of money and down her cleavage also invites us to ogle Molly, reframing her as a sexual object, undercutting her presentation as a shrewd business woman who uses allure as a tool to hook fools. It’s like he just can’t help himself.
Worse still is Sorkin’s late-in-the-game need to explain Molly’s defiant, proud nature with a tired trope. At her lowest point, Molly goes to an ice rink, speeding about like a mad woman, daring security to come and catch her. It’s a juvenile rebellion. So when she looks up to see her frowning father (Kevin Costner), I assumed she was hallucinating from all the stress. Nope. Out of nowhere, her estranged father pops up, and of course he’s a therapist, who gives her a crash course on her emotional baggage, which comes down to its all about him. Sorkin cannot conceive why a woman would rebel against a patriarchal structure unless she has Daddy Issues. Beyond being groan-inducingly literal, this turn shows an absolute ignorance of why women might feel constrained in male-dominated arenas. More frustrating, it means Molly’s Game is ultimately not about Molly or her game, but her dad. Because even when a woman is Sorkin’s protagonist, he has to find a way to make it about men? It’s a gut punch to the good time and even feminist reading the film had going. And while Costner’s father-therapist backpedals this assertion slightly in the excruciatingly long and unnecessary scene, the damage is done.
Molly’s Game is an exhilarating and enraging watch. Chastain slays. Elba shines, and Sorkin’s dialogue does not disappoint. That is until that damn scene, which taints everything that follows.
Molly’s Game opens in select theaters December 25th, and will expand on January 5th.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko a co-host for the Sirius XM show It’s Erik Nagel, and has taught a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com