“Aaron Sorkin can’t write for women” is a common complaint you’ll hear about the Oscar-winning screenwriter. His female characters are sharp-witted, but if audiences listen closely, they’re all essentially saying the same exact thing. Molly has plenty to say in “Molly’s Game,” and Sorkin does too as a first-time director trying to tell this real-life memoir on the big screen. But the movie’s erratic direction and unfocused progression suggests that Sorkin has a journey to go before he becomes fluent behind the camera.
Jessica Chastain plays Molly Bloom, a confident, distanced former skier who, through happenstance and true grit, built an underground poker empire that had everyone from the Russian mob to Hollywood A-listers angling for a seat at her table. She oozes coolness and intrigue, keeping her head held high even when it’s being bashed into a wall by gangsters.
But, she shows little to no emotion, no authentic reaction or acknowledgment of the gravity of her situation through the end of the film. Witnessing Molly’s non-emotion is like watching someone lose in the World Series of Poker Final but not seeing their reaction afterwards. We can’t really understand her loss or pain if she doesn’t show it to us.
I haven’t read the memoir on which this movie is based, but at least from what Sorkin tells us, much of the reason or the entire reason why Molly is the way she is is because of her dad. Played by Kevin Costner, Larry Bloom is overbearing and unloving, an educated brute who values success and reprimands failure, with no space left for love in his chilly, Coloradan heart. And then there’s Charlie Jaffey, the gifted attorney who serves as the other father figure in Molly’s life, with his hefty retainer offering ample supplies of tough legal love.
Larry and Charlie are interesting, educated and articulate characters and the movie is better for them. But they also serve a strange purpose of being the vehicles of how Molly finds or discovers herself, how if it weren’t for these men, Molly wouldn’t have ever been Molly, or ever known what it is to be Molly.
Again, this is an adaptation and maybe that Molly’s relationship with her dad and lawyer are like in real life. Or maybe it’s an example of how Sorkin, even with a female character standing at the peak of his story, can’t help but talk about all the men who actually are responsible for her. It’s your call to say if he’s bluffing.
Character dilemmas aside, Sorkin hasn’t really mastered the art of pacing and movement from behind the camera. Unlike blackjack, poker is a slow-moving game where drama builds and releases in periodic but powerful doses. The film doesn’t convey that, thinking that because it’s a card game movie, it needs to be like “Casino” or “21” and move just as fast. Montages and cuts happen so quick and often we don’t have time to effectively build relationships with characters on screen or care for their respective struggles.
The funny quips and verbal jabs are welcomed, like when Molly and Charlie spar back and forth about “The Crucible,” or when Larry challenges Molly to a bout of psychological word games. They are the film’s most joyous moments, showcasing Sorkin’s penchant for crafting unforgettable dialogue between two articulate, opposing characters in conflict. Sadly, those moments happen too few and far between to really make them count.
“Molly’s Game” doesn’t necessarily prove that Sorkin can’t be a formidable filmmaker in the future, but for now, it does prove that he is accustomed to crafting a certain type of story, and that other individuals may be better at translating his stories to the big screen. Instead of giving breathing room to its more heartfelt or insightful moments, it bets too big and too fast, causing the audience to walk away from the table far too soon.