Private, invitation-only, high-stakes poker games are being played every night in cities all over the world. It’s a world of poker that only a select few are familiar with, and a level of play that often involves unsavoury elements: drugs, mobsters, illegal activity, etc. Elements that demand discretion. Maybe that’s why, when I googled “who were the poker advisors on Molly’s Game”, I didn’t see any famous poker players from TV. Instead, I found you.
Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, tells the true story of the one-time Olympic hopeful turned "Poker Princess" Molly Bloom. Like Molly, you ran illegal games, and like Molly , you got caught. Then you went legit, and now you and your partner (Albert Choi, another of the film’s advisors) run All In Entertainment, which focuses on charity fundraising. You have successfully stayed under the radar, eschewing fame for stability. Molly didn’t have that option. In order to dig herself out of her oblique involvement with Russian mobsters and a Ponzi scheme which led to racketeering charges, she wrote the best-selling not-so-tell-all book upon which this film is based.
I have absolutely no affinity for gambling in the abstract or poker in particular. But I was immediately caught up in the game as it comes to life in this film. Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire writing style is a solid match for this modern rags-to-riches-to-rags story, in particular because he lets Jessica Chastain hold all the cards. This is her movie, and she elevates it from pretty good to great. Sorkin sets up the story at a break-neck (or break-spine, as it were) pace, and Chastain’s transformation from naïve gambling neophyte to master of her game is a thrill to watch. Sorkin gives Chastain some cracking narration to deliver but most of it is expository when it should have been personally revealing. He saves Molly’s inner struggles for flashbacks, and in doing so, tips his hand. A classic rookie mistake.
The standard Sorkin dialogue crackles between Chastain and the eminently watchable Idris Elba as her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey. Sorkin is a master of caustic, witty back-and-forths, and Chastain and Elba spar beautifully over Molly’s legal predicament. It’s when Molly notices how Charlie’s overbearing treatment of his young daughter mirrors her own troubled relationship with her father that this film loses its credibility. Distilling what should have been a complex character study of a woman competing and excelling in man’s world down to her "daddy issues" isn’t just obvious and hackneyed, it’s also reductive as fuck.
Instead it places Molly’s successes and failures – on the slopes and at the poker table – on the shoulders of her father, a man she constantly tried to please, yet felt she could never truly make proud. When daughter and father finally have their moment of redemption it is so contrived it felt like it was ripped from a discarded Highway to Heaven script, and not from someone who has been hailed as one of Hollywood’s best screenwriters.
Thankfully, Sorkin surrounded himself with the right people like Chastain, and you, a poker expert who helped him make the gambling scenes the most exciting part of the film, even for non-gamblers. These scenes are reminiscent of the best parts of Sorkin’s writing—rhythmic, clever, and bursting with information and character development without feeling pedantic. But when compared to most of the rest of the film, these scenes feel like they were from a completely different movie.
This is Sorkin’s first time directing, and it’s also his first time writing a female lead. Anyone who has been paying attention would know that Sorkin has, um, problems with his female characters. And anyone who was hoping he would quiet his critics with Molly’s Game will be disappointed. He was dealt an excellent hand – compelling source material, a brilliant lead, and sizeable budget to bring his script to life – but in the end, he just didn’t know what to do with his queen.