You don’t have to be more than an hour into Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game to realize the conceit of its coinciding narrative structure and thematic arc. Poker is a game of constant, sudden shifts in power balances – allegedly, from what I’ve gathered in highlight packages on ESPN and other movies depicting games – and though you can stay on top assuming you’re skilled enough, in some cases, you also have to be lucky enough to stay there. You can be completely in control of yourself and what’s in your possession, but you have to account for a bevy of unpredictable outside factors.
Appropriately then, Molly’s Game depicts its titular protagonist, the fascinating Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), rise to the top having already felt the bottom, only to metaphorically go all in, betting dangerously on her enterprise’s legality, slowly but surely succumbing to the desperation associated with losing the upper hand. A Hollywood biopic about an elite gambling ring in which the leading character gambles on her once-in-a-million success? Whether it’s the film itself or a concoction of story expectations thanks to decades of similar, prestigious Oscar hopefuls that helps us detect the eventual plot progression, regardless of familiarity with Bloom’s story, it’s this kind of poeticism in which Sorkin happily resides with nearly all of his projects – quite often thriving in it, in fact.
Though Sorkin’s stamp as a director is fairly indistinguishable from almost any other relative no-name handed a bona fide Oscar property, we’ll always recognize what is and isn’t a Sorkin film because of his dialogue. In fact, how his style meshes with various filmmakers of singular voices – David Fincher, Danny Boyle and Mike Nichols to name a few – is what makes each one interesting enough aside from other possible merits. There’s nothing particularly stimulating to Sorkin’s approach behind the lens aesthetically, but unsurprisingly, he directs with full understanding of how his prose ebbs and flows, picking up on particular beats in his intense tennis match-like conversations that mimic the a traditional three-act structure’s curvature within a two to three-minute timeframe.
The energy guiding us through Bloom’s life story as a high-stakes game runner, with present day scenes of Bloom’s arraignment and conversations with her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), spliced in between, for the most part consistently remains at a high level to keep up the pace with the film’s audacious length. The final product is still a tad overlong and some scenes jarringly slow proceedings down despite Sorkin’s madcap word-smithing, but it’s because of the latter that Molly’s Game stays afloat. Even when Sorkin’s rampant compositions – to his credit, dialogue is essentially music – are only at their most moderately affecting, he can pull off complete audience engagement from those who haven’t yet grown weary of his rhythmic or thematic motifs. And to his additional credit, everyone present character in any given scene needing to be the smartest one in the room is a simple, ironically naturalistic source of conflict that remains thoroughly entertaining, especially when Sorkin knowingly hyperbolizes true stories and people.
In their own way, all of the movies for which Sorkin has written are about power; seeking it, establishing it and the ramifications of maintaining it. It’s a classically theatrical crux befitting his background, and though the performances his various collaborators have gotten from their chosen actors have more often than not withstood the expectations associated with Sorkin’s brand, balancing realism with idealized language enhancement, there are times when even the best of turns is inevitably outshone by the snappy showiness of the dialogue, itself. Chastain and Elba, among others, both give solid performances that capably demonstrate that balance between humanity and uncommon wit, but only occasionally do the characters truly feel theirs, not just Sorkin’s. It certainly shouldn’t take away from what the two contribute, but eventually he always comes around to express his own dominance.
It’s coldly calculated control that sometimes eludes feeling and emotional satisfaction, but then again, that accurately describes the fictionalized versions, at least, of the real-life figures he chooses to study. It’s why his movies are such a perennial fascination; not just how he can possibly make his dialogue even snappier than before. There’s nothing to outdo or anything to prove; he can just be comfortably himself. As divisive as his approach is, it isn’t too risky, at least not anymore if it ever was, but it’s still compelling. Molly’s Game may not always know what it can’t get away with – recurring beats that temporarily stall character progression, lending to an overlong feeling, for one – but it, as well as its creator, knows what it can.
This is the second straight Sorkin feature in which overall dynamism offsets a relative lack of thematic density and emotional investment, but he’s not exactly in danger of thin ice. He doesn’t need to recapture or eclipse the cultural zeitgeist like he achieved with The Social Network, but even from as consistent a pro as he, a little experimentation might be what the doctor ordered. If Molly’s Game is his launching pad towards being a writer/director, here’s to hoping he goes all in with his next target.