It’s always an interesting proposition when a famous writer decides to take on double duties and direct their own work. With some, it helps reveal untold depths and hidden talents – think Shane Black’s comic noir reinvigoration with ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’, or Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece of existential reckoning in ‘Synechoche, New York’. But with others, it does nothing but exacerbate some of their worst tendencies in a galling act of hubris – remember Akiva Goldsman’s Will Smith-as-the-devil ‘Winter’s Tale’, anyone? No? Good.
Luckily, slotting in somewhere in the middle there is ‘Molly’s Game’, the directorial debut of maybe the most acclaimed writer of the last thirty years, Aaron Sorkin. After delivering a series of witty, complex, rapid-fire screenplays based around true life figures blown up to epic proportions (the best of which, 2010’s ‘The Social Network’, might just be one of the greatest films of all time), Sorkin here turns his myth-making gaze to Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain, 'Miss Sloane', 'Zero Dark Thirty'), the mastermind behind an elite, high-stakes poker game populated by celebrities and billionaires. That is, until she’s busted by the FBI for alleged links to the Russian mafia, and put under pressure to name names and betray confidences – which she steadfastly refuses to do, much to the chagrin of her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba, ‘The Mountain Between Us’, ‘Thor: Ragnarok’).
Jumping back and forth between multiple timelines, Sorkin moulds Molly’s story into a ripping yarn, one that’s at its most entertaining and propulsive during its portrayal of its protagonist’s ruthlessly intelligent rise from an assistant organising the game of Hollywood’s sleaziest douchebag (a dead-eyed Jeremy Strong, and I mean that as a compliment), to the “Cinemax version” of herself, carving her own niche in a world of powerful men. Here, the writing is sharp, the performances winning, and the film zips along at the pace of a particularly speedy Sorkin monologue. Even before that, of particular note is the film’s prologue, a killer scene that dramatises the exact circumstances around the derailing of Molly’s career aspirations as an Olympic-level freestyle skier by a single nefarious twig. Sorkin ratchets up the tension in a thrillingly relentless sequence, with Chastain’s quip-heavy narration hurtling the viewer through bounds of information in a cannily edited, ferociously compelling, truly outstanding moment. But, it’s one that the film never quite recovers from.
Where in the hands of other, more experienced directors Sorkin’s screenplays become digestible, thematically robust investigations into their central figures’ souls, Sorkin himself isn’t quite up to the task of pulling all of that together. The film’s greatest strengths in that opening scene - and really its first hour - soon become its Achilles heel. Where Sorkin is finely attuned to when his characters need a breath or a dramatic pause, that same awareness never seems to translate to his shaping of the film in the editing room, as large chunks of the movie end up feeling like extended montages rather than actual scenes and sequences.
Chastain delivers a towering central performance, bulldozing her way through a complex, intelligent, charismatic woman.
In fact, though Sorkin’s stardom can often outshine his performers, the real star of the show here is, well, the star. The magnificent Jessica Chastain delivers a towering central performance, bulldozing her way through a complex, intelligent, charismatic woman. More shark than person, her unyielding drive and brazen ruthlessness give Chastain her meatiest role in years, one she tears into hungrily. She crafts an alert, assured performance; her Molly is always watching, always performing, and always studying, and she pulls off Sorkin’s rat-a-tat dialogue with aplomb. Plus the rest of the ensemble lends able support, as the likes of Bill Camp, Brian d’Arcy James and Chris O’Dowd make memorable, finely etched appearances along the way, while Elba himself offers a vigorous match in some dynamite verbal throwdowns. Best of all, though, as a character dubbed 'Player X' (in a self-aware move against the possibly litigious celebrities he’s a composite of), is Michael Cera, in what might just end up being one of the finest supporting performances of the year. Deliciously callous and subtly menacing, it’s the type of mode we’ve never seen from the actor before, and it’s thrilling to see his charms curdled to such compelling effect.
While it may not be without its pleasures, it is indeed a mixed bag. Exasperatingly, Sorkin makes some fatal stumbles in a series of thuddingly unsubtle scenes at the end of the film. Choosing to have a series of men mansplaining the film’s central female character either directly to or whilst totally ignoring the film’s central female character is a stunningly bone-headed decision, and undercuts much of the goodwill he accrues by finally writing a great female protagonist. Couple that with an overly frenetic pace, an unnecessary (though still well-performed) side-plot with Kevin Costner as Bloom’s father, and an eventually overriding visual blandness, and what could’ve been a great directorial debut for the acclaimed screenwriter ends up being a merely average one.