Aaron Sorkin is one of the world’s most well known screenwriters, with fans of his universally recognisable fast paced and highly stylised dialogue even giving his dialogue a name: Sorkinese. Usually when directors pick up screenplays, they bend them to their will – with Sorkin’s screenplays, directors are usually left with no option but to move through the dialogue exchanges at a propulsive speed, leaving the lasting impression that, in these rare instances, the screenwriter is every bit the defining auteur of the project as the filmmaker behind the camera.
This is the reason why it’s so shocking to discover Molly’s Game is Sorkin’s directorial debut. He leaves his stamp so markedly over other filmmaker’s projects, it feels like we’ve already seen movies where he’s had complete creative control- even in his collaborations with distinctive directors such as David Fincher and Danny Boyle. Of all the filmmakers he has gifted screenplays in the past, it is Boyle (who directed his Steve Jobs back in 2015) who appears to be the biggest influence on his visual sensibility. There is a hyper kinetic feel to Molly’s Game, from the breakneck speed of the dialogue, to the Boyle-inspired visual quirks, which mercifully don’t detract from the film in the same way Boyle’s stylistic detours (most recently, a cringeworthy Raging Bull parody sequence in T2: Trainspotting) frequently do.
Molly’s Game;dir.: Aaron Sorkin; USA 2017, 142 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★½/5
The film is a biopic of Molly Bloom, adapted from her memoir of the same name. Bloom, played with scenery chewing relish by Jessica Chastain (and by Samantha Isler in the teenage flashbacks, an uncanny piece of casting), is a former skier, who publicly quit the sport after a second high profile injury. Molly’s Game picks up twelve years later, where she is working in a Los Angeles nightclub, only to be noticed by a real estate agent (Jeremy Strong) who swiftly hires her as his assistant. One of her duties is helping arrange his underground high stakes poker games, attended by some of Hollywood’s elite- including a major actor, only even referred to as “Player X”, and portrayed by Michael Cera as the antithesis of the stereotypical Michael Cera performance.
When her boss’s business begins to lose money, he’s forced to let Molly go – but not before she steals his address book, and starts arranging her own poker games, with larger stakes. Over the coming years, her operation moves to the East Coast, attracting some of the richest gamblers on Wall Street. However, she becomes connected to the Russian mafia, and in a timeline that runs concurrently with the narrative laid out above, finds herself in a difficult court case with major incriminating evidence laid out in her previously published autobiography (which, in an understated meta flourish, is what this film is adapting). Against his best judgement, renowned lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) decides to take on her tricky case.
If the convoluted nature of the plot sounds exhausting, don’t worry: as with all Aaron Sorkin films, dense storytelling is compressed to fit the film’s high speed, imbuing proceedings with an energy you wouldn’t expect from a stereotypical legal drama. Sorkin has previously said he likes his screenplays to start in the middle of a fast paced sequence, letting the audience learn about the characters onscreen even before they’ve adjusted to the film’s high speed rhythms- think back to the masterful opening break-up scene in The Social Network. Equally, Molly’s Game opens with a breakneck pre-credits sequence, as Chastain’s voiceover narration pummels the audience with statistics and the moments leading up to an embarrassing moment in Molly’s life, before climaxing with a doozy of a punchline. It doesn’t exactly break new ground for Sorkin, but it immediately reassures the audience that when it comes to screenwriting, he’s still got it.
Unfortunately, the film’s 142 minute runtime is the biggest hurdle to overcome; when the film’s second half begins, with the action moved to New York, the madcap energy of the first 90 minutes is replaced by a more straightforward true crime approach to the storytelling. The film’s high energy runs out of steam, and although it remains watchable, falls victim to a variety of contrived screenwriting coincidences that feel significantly beneath the capabilities of the talented writer/director. One particularly offending moment is a random trip to an ice skating rink, where Molly starts speeding around- only to find her father (Kevin Costner) in the crowd, specifically visiting the rink to meet her. Even though he’s from out of state, and they haven’t spoken in a long time. Multiple narratively-convenient occurrences like this take place in the film’s second half, and it consistently feels out of step with the film’s true life origins- not to mention feeling awkward next to the confident swagger the film possesses elsewhere.
Sorkin’s command over his actors (with commanding performances from Chastain and Isler in the title role, as well as the cast against type Cera) dissipates in the second half. His tight control over the performers when wrestling with his dialogue seems to be defeated by the sudden appearance of Chris O Dowd, who is simultaneously failing at keeping up with the film’s quick pace, and speaking in a believable American accent. He’s the film’s weakest link, with his initial appearance onscreen suddenly dragging proceedings to a halt and starting the process that begins to drain the film of its energy on the way to the finish line.
But luckily, there’s more to like than criticise in Molly’s Game, even if the film’s later stages pale in comparison to the preposterously entertaining underworld saga that came before. The first half of Molly’s Game features some of Sorkin’s best ever screenwriting- and in Chastain, an actress who can digest his dense dialogue as easy as somebody reading the phonebook. It’s a shame the film eventually goes downhill, but for the most part, Molly’s is a Game worth playing.