Film, Reviews, Screen

Molly’s Game film review: Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut a snappy poker tale about the American dream

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His Girl Friday, one of the great comedies of the 1940s, is remembered less for what it says, than how it says it. Australian director Bert Deling, who helmed the grungry 1975 classic Pure Shit, showed his cast the film to encourage them to speak faster and remove gaps between sentences. Streams of frantically paced verbal ping-pong are present in many screwball comedies and the technique appears in mutated modern forms. One recent example is in Armando Iannucci’s profanely high-pitched 2009 pièce de résistance, In the Loop.

It is also present in the work of the veteran writer Aaron Sorkin, though tempo and inflection are out of a writer’s jurisdiction. They do words, not pace: one of many reasons why someone like Sorkin wants to direct his own material. Indeed, Sorkin jumps behind the camera for Molly’s Game, directing a script he adapted from a book of the same name. It was written by the real-life protagonist of the film, the ‘poker princess’ Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain in an excellent, high-wired, attention-devouring performance).

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Like the screwballs of old, the writer-cum-director dictates lickety-split delivery from Chastain and the supporting cast (including Idris Elba as Molly’s leery lawyer), but with a two-wayed approach. Pedal to the metal dialogue is paired with pedal to the metal voice-over narration, which exacerbates the film’s hurried manner.

Sorkin opens at the top of a snow-covered hill, depicting trials for the 2002 Winter Games. Molly is reminiscing about an accident that profoundly changed her life. Bursts of words come quickly with cuts that last for a second or maybe two, visuals of the film matched to the pace of narration. At the end of this sequence – showing how Molly’s dreams of being a world-class skier were quashed when she tripped over a tiny twig – the protagonist jokes that the moment we just watched has nothing to do with poker.

It does, however, reflect the thick-skinned and results-driven parts of her character and fingers a core theme of the film. Molly’s Game is about how small things can have huge effect: in sport, in poker, in life. That message crops up on several occasions, reflected through the turn of a card, or flustered responses around the poker table, or in a heat of the moment remark Molly utters to ‘Player X’ (a character believed to be partly based on Tobey Maguire).

The story is a fall of the empire narrative; rags to riches then back to rags  — and is broadly reminiscent of Casino or Boogie Nights. The focus here revolves tightly around Molly as she runs a long running, high-stakes poker game in LA but is finally arrested by FBI agents (told in non-linear structure, this is revealed early in the piece). It is another story about achieving the American Dream at a price, which is ultimately the cost of the dream itself.

It’s a shame that a film so tuned to a small-can-be-large message, with many scenes highly compact and muscular (affording room for the key cast to grandstand as they speak fluent Sorkinese) is outstretched. At 140 minutes Molly’s Game loses its punchiness; His Girl Friday says much more in 92 minutes. While Kevin Costner gives a rare, affecting performance as Molly’s father Larry, he appears in moments late in the game that feel at best out of place and at worst a betrayal of Sorkin’s incisive and witty approach.

The worst part of the otherwise shit hot conclusion that word slinger Sorkin wrote for the 1992 legal drama A Few Good Men (which coined the famous catchphrase “you can’t handle the truth!”) was its conclusion. A mopey, dishonourably discharged soldier caused some audiences to snigger when he opined: “We were supposed to fight for people who can’t fight for themselves; we were supposed to fight for Willy”.

Such mawkish sentiment dulled the sting of the moments preceding it. The equivalent in Molly’s Game is an unnecessary, scene-long, park bench exchange — albeit nowhere near as clanging. For the most part, this is a disciplined and highly energetic film tuned to an understanding that words matter – as communicative tools, and as weapons to be fired rapidly and extensively.

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Molly’s Game opens in Australian cinemas on February 1.

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