Molly’s Game has an engaging story with whip-snap dialogue that features Jessica Chastain in another commanding role.
It was only a matter of time before Academy Award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin decided to transition to directing. Maybe it’s appropriate, then, that so much of his directorial debut, Molly’s Game, is focused on powerful men and their ability to manipulate situations. On the surface, Molly’s Game is a sprightly, rapid-fire poker story that ultimately blossoms into an examination of gender parity and control, topics meant to elicit head-scratches from longtime Sorkin followers. Dubious handling of the material aside, Molly’s Game has an engaging story, for the most part, with whip-snap dialogue that features Jessica Chastain in another commanding role that should get her more attention than she will probably receive.
Molly Bloom (Chastain) is an overachiever who becomes the organizing arm of one of Los Angeles’ elite poker games. When she’s burned by her boss, Molly takes matters into her own hands, establishing a poker den that she owns and controls, making her the “self-proclaimed ‘Poker Princess’” on two coasts. But a series of events puts her at the mercy of the Russian mob and she’s brought up on felony charges that could destroy her for good.
At first blush, it might seem disingenuous for a man like Sorkin, whom numerous female critics have blasted for his false depictions of women, to tell the true story of Molly Bloom, especially in the context in which she’s presented. First introduced after suffering a traumatizing ski injury, Molly sets out for Los Angeles to prove her psychologist father (Kevin Costner, at his gruffest) wrong. She keeps delaying law school, with its inherent promise of a “real” career, in favor of being the woman running a “decadent man cave” on both coasts. Molly continuously attempts to break the glass ceiling but finds every avenue blocked by men who feel she owes them, from a former boss who thinks it “isn’t fair” she’s making so much money to an A-list celebrity (Michael Cera, at his smarmiest) upset that Molly isn’t nice enough to him.
Those averse to poker movies, fear not: Molly’s Game explains poker in a way that’s never condescending nor complicated. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s camera glides around chic hotel rooms, capturing Molly and the players, but never showing their cards, metaphorically or literally. These breathless all-nighters end up being far more fascinating than the court case, wherein Molly is on trial for colluding with Russian mob figures. This isn’t to say Molly isn’t interesting, just that Molly’s Game works best when it’s focused on the game itself. There’s no denying the deft hand Sorkin has with his script, and the sharp dialogue of Molly’s Game is easily on par with his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Network. Sorkin’s tone is equally frenzied, with Chastain spitting out poker terms as the camera frantically rushes to capture the same game.
All of this is cleanly handled by Chastain. It’s easy to see why Molly and her story is so compelling. Chastain, swathed in enough Chanel and other couture to entice the Bling Ring to make a pitstop, presents Molly as effervescent, dominant and intimidating. As she lays out her plan in an organic use of voiceover, she showcases Molly as an organizer who understands what the men in her cabal want more than they do. She’s always two steps ahead, and that is where the film’s ultimate message lies: men don’t necessarily enjoy a woman smarter than themselves.
Alongside Chastain is a male cast who falls cleanly into the category of “enemies” or “allies, kinda.” Cera plays the Big Bad in the film’s first half, his wandering eyes and coy smile hiding the soul of a python, waiting to trip Molly up. On the other end of the spectrum is Idris Elba’s attorney figure, Charlie Jaffey. Elba provides an equally strong and domineering male counterpart to Molly, but it’s hard not to associate him as the “right” kind of father figure for her, a man who encourages his daughter to learn, yet can’t help but provide a surface reading of The Crucible or refuse to admit a woman might know more than he does.
When Sorkin is focused on the unfair gender politics of Molly’s Game, and how it extends beyond poker and into all facets of the workplace, it is a poignantly sad and authentic depiction. Even when the film caters to how men view Molly, it feels like it has something to say. But, time and again, Sorkin can’t get out of his own way and has to stop things in their tracks. Case in point, Molly’s relationship with her father. Costner’s character is a gruff, abusive figure who forces his daughter to ski with an injured back, and he refuses to “allow” her to disagree with him. Though a bit trite, all of these moments, presented in flashback, do an admirable job of showing Molly’s home life—her mother is apparently uninteresting because she’s only seen in peripheral shots. However, Sorkin feels the need to present a moral to the story wherein Molly’s father mansplains to her about why she’s done everything in the feature. It’s a reductive hijacking of Molly’s agency that ends up undoing everything the film was shakily building.
Molly’s Game tells a corny story of a woman who rails against the unfair patriarchy. Chastain turns in another committed performance, but Sorkin’s script and direction attempt to convey how the world actively fights against female agency while simultaneously enforcing those same paradigms with dull male figures who either represent fathers or scorned lovers.