Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, has very little tonal variety. It plays one note, but it plays it very, very well. I absolutely went along for the ride, even as I was aware that, in a way, I was being duped into watching variations of the same scene again and again. It’s like one of those prototypical Philip Glass pieces, endlessly repeating with minor variations, that you either love or don’t. I did.
Famous for his particular writing style, Sorkin takes a bold swing with his screenplay here (adapted from Molly Bloom’s confessional book), letting his protagonist – Molly – tell the story of how she ran two high-stakes, exclusive, ‘glamourous’ poker games through almost constant voice-over. Jessica Chastain plays Molly, and not only is she in every scene, she’s talking over every scene. Some of the voice-over is irrefutably redundant, violating the famous screenwriter’s axiom by “telling, not showing” – Molly’s voice will literally be describing something we’re seeing acted out on screen – but it has a cumulative effect: the film becomes incredibly intimate. Like most of the players at her game, I pretty much fell in love with Molly, and driving home from the cinema, I missed her and her ever-present voice. I still do.
Of course, I was also falling for Jessica Chastain, who infuses Molly with great strength and vulnerability. She’s an intriguing character; before she became LA and New York’s pre-eminent host of high-stakes poker, she was a competitive freestyle skier, and ferociously intelligent with an unusually wide base of general knowledge, thanks to a highly ambitious psychologist father (Kevin Costner). Often, she’s lurking, straight-backed, perfectly coiffed and professional, as the men (only men) at her poker table dominate the frame, which, I suppose, is another justification for her omnipresent voice-over. Molly herself very rarely lets her guard down, so it’s up to Chastain to infuse perfect moments with subtle reveals, which she does expertly.
Speaking of those poker-playing men: they’re awful, all of them, and their big-dicking at the green felt gives the film a constant thrumming tension that some may find too relentless to bear. They’re rich dudes – movie stars, tech titans, film directors, financiers, and, later, criminals – who are used to being allowed to win. Every time one of them loses, there is potential for bad juju all around. It’s gripping and a little exhausting. If the movie, at two hours twenty, is a little long for some, it would be a poker scene or two that could have been plucked in the final cut.
Overall, it’s a totally engaging real-life thriller, if you like this kind of thing. There are certainly people I wouldn’t recommend it to; despite being the story of a strong woman, it’s dripping in all the sweaty testosterone and ego of the players, like a sports flick. And while there are sharp lines, it’s not terribly funny (and certainly not a ‘comedy’). I really had a good time. And still miss Molly.
By the way – and this is not a spoiler – I wish I’d known, going in, who ‘Player X’ was in real life, so I’m going to tell you. Ready? Tobey Maguire.