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With high voltage energy and the type of kinetic movement that possesses his screenplay’s, Aaron Sorkin’s first directorial endeavor blasts off with a bang, capturing our attention before the title card drops. In part due to the intriguing subject, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) but in large part credited to the fast paced nature of the opening moments, we’re hooked before we have time to think too far into what it means for Sorkin to be directing a film. The script remains his greatest asset as it weaves one storyline thread into another with nimble fingers, making the near two and a half hours breeze by, giving Chastain dialogue to sink her teeth into and make her own. A nimble director who bursts out of the gate, touting trademarks of directors he’s worked with prior, his inexperience isn’t enough to make the film less than engaging, but it’s hard not to wonder what the film might’ve been if Sorkin had written the script and someone else had taken the directors chair.
Based on the true story, Molly Bloom, a young skier and former Olympic hopeful whose career was cut short becomes a successful entrepreneur when establishes a high-stakes, international poker game that holds seats for famous musicians, politicians, actors, athletes and later, members of the mob. A target of an FBI investigation, the film tracks her rise, her fall and her search for redemption during the trial.
Edited so that each and every moment is striking, if not lasting, the film might be guilty of style over substance if it weren’t for just how fascinating Molly is as a subject and also the two hander of Elba and Chastain working together. We’ve seen Chastain play aspects of this character before be it in her ruthless, get what she wants attitude in last years Miss Sloan or her no-nonsense, woman in a man’s world character in Zero Dark Thirty and it’s a testament to Chastain’s natural gifts that Molly comes across as polar opposite of those two. She’s determined, highly intelligent and facing an uphill battle, but the motivations that moved her to the place that she’s in make for a performance that’s as cynical as it is bright eyed, as she dives into this new world ready for any and all new opportunities before she’s unceremoniously burnt by it. She was made for Sorkin’s dialogue, delivering each line with her certain brand of clipped enthusiasm and a chilly calm that almost is able to hide the character’s undercurrent of vulnerability. Elba, similarly, is given the chance to dig into the dialogue, with a few impassioned speeches that remind us just why we all want him cast in more films, if there were ever any moment we’d forgotten.
Sorkin makes sure that all of the actors are given meaty moments though, from Kevin Costner as Molly’s father who is seen as the pillar of doubt in Molly’s past and develops into a much more flawed man who still loves his daughter, to Michael Cera who is excellent in a few small scenes, playing up the smarmy nature of the actor he’s playing. It’s a performance piece of a film which without the right performers would’ve fallen flat. The dialogue is great on the page but the actors make it sing.
There’s so little doubt at this point that Sorkin is a superb writer who loves his tete-a-tete style back and forth’s, rambling monologues that embrace the jargon of the given world and fervent speeches about the betterment of humankind. A self-satisfied writer, the trouble is the balancing act between coming off too earnest and ultimately self-grandiosity (ahem, The Newsroom) and just earnest enough with a world weary level of naturalism (The Social Network). In Molly’s Game he’s once again at top form, fitting such a large story into the running time without ever loosing grasp of a thread or forgetting to grant one story or character the right amount of closure. It’s a story about triumph and great personal loss and, most radically for Sorkin, casts a female character at its center. A surprise, and surely reason for trepidation when you see how he’s treated female characters in the past (see, again, The Newsroom), Molly is as fully formed as any character he’s put to page.
His directing leaves more to be desired as he clearly is taking from directors he’s worked with in the past from specific panning shots from David Fincher to the hyperactive cutting of Danny Boyle but the editing team does enough to make it flow and function. Far from bad work, Sorkin has room to grow in the field but with some fine honing could be a reputable talent behind the camera.
More in line with the engaging, if forgettable, The Big Short than the game-changing, technical and emotional master class of craft that was The Social Network, Molly’s Game greatest asset is that by the end of the film you’re going to be googling to learn more about the titular heroine. There’s no dead beats, no moment where the audience is anything less than engaged with the story and eagerly awaiting to see how it ends. It won’t be a film talked about long after seeing, but it’s more than worth the time.