Aaron Sorkin thinks Molly’s Game is his version of The Crucible.
How do we know this? Because he references Arthur Miller’s famous play about the Salem witch trials—which was written as a commentary on the Hollywood Blacklist—multiple times over the course of the movie, at one point having the titular heroine echo one of its most famous lines.
Sadly for Sorkin, Molly’s Game is not The Crucible, one of the great works in the American canon. It’s often a zippy, fun time, however—that is, if you can convince yourself to overlook its self-congratulation and mildly regressive gender politics.
Sorkin is one of the few writers in Hollywood who is a brand unto himself, and here he doubles down on that, making his directorial debut by adapting Poker Princess, Molly Bloom’s memoir. With Jessica Chastain on hand to deliver his pithy retorts and provide nearly constant savvy, smarter-than-thou narration, he tells the saga of the one-time tabloid sensation who ran high stakes poker games for celebrities and scions before she was arrested.
The screenplay simultaneously focuses on three elements of Bloom’s life: Her remarkable rise in the exclusive world, her subsequent legal battles, and her relationship with a demanding, cheating father (Kevin Costner). Chastain, radiating confidence, is never quite believable as a naive newcomer to Los Angeles. Fortunately, it doesn’t take Molly long to get the hang of her new business and watching her flourish is captivating.
Chastain nails the delicate balance Molly’s job requires, catering to the egos of these foolish men while alternately acting as their puppet master. She does her best acting when Molly is doing her best hosting.
A bevy of recognizable faces pop in as her gamblers, and many are excellent – to an extent that you wish the fast-moving plot would let them hang around a little bit longer. Michael Cera exudes an inscrutable sleaziness as a star known as “Player X.” (By all accounts, his real-life name rhymes with Schmoby Schmaguire.) Later, when Molly moves her operation to New York, Chris O’Dowd stands out as a drunk constantly professing his love for her.
All the while, Sorkin’s writing manages, as it frequently does, to make rote logistics invigorating. As a director, he shows no distinct visual flair, but keeps the action moving at a quick clip.
It’s when we flash to Molly’s interactions with her at-first reluctant lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) that the problems begin. There’s a distracting, meta thread, as Sorkin makes Molly’s defining trait her refusal to give up dirt on her clients although it might benefit her. He references the movie deals she turns down because studios want to include salacious details. But that back-patting isn’t as aggravating as the fact that Sorkin seems to view Molly’s story as largely one about fathers and daughters.
This dynamic was a prominent feature in his Steve Jobs biopic, but there’s even less of a reason for it to exist here. He draws a parallel between Molly’s upbringing and the strict way Charlie is raises his own child by making her do extra homework assignments—like, for instance, read The Crucible.
Molly eventually approves of his methodology and Charlie becomes something of a parental figure for her, providing her the support she never received growing up. But then, in the third act, Molly’s own dad appears as if in a deus ex machina—he quite literally seems like a vision at first—to explain her actions and offer his forgiveness. It’s a saccharine, unnecessary scene, that does a disservice to Molly herself.
There’s reason to be skeptical about Sorkin’s portrayal of a female protagonist, given his reputation for inserting crazy bitch or incompetent ninny types in his work. Molly’s Game has nothing that insulting, but Sorkin still frustratingly refuses to let Bloom be a nuanced antihero. Despite giving her a bunch of “fuck you” dialogue, he wants to convince you that she’s both a damaged young woman whose decisions were impacted by deep-seated resentment in her childhood and a paragon of selflessness.
At one point, Molly explains that the poker fiends like her because she’s the “anti-wife,” letting them get away with the behavior their spouses would despise. They see her as the ideal woman—one who will protect them while still letting them have fun, alternately sexy and chaste.
It’s too bad the film operates from their same starry-eyed perspective.