“Molly’s Game,” Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, is – surprise! – chockablock with dialogue. You can practically close your eyes and still get the gist of the movie. Not that you would necessarily want to close your eyes: the actors, including Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, are a showy bunch.
Chastain’s Molly Bloom, as Bloom herself detailed in her bestselling autobiography, had ambitions to become an Olympic skier before injuries curtailed her career. For a while, she was an assistant to a piggish Los Angeles real estate mogul and eventually ended up running unlicensed high-stakes poker games in New York and L.A. Eventually the FBI, suspecting she had links to the Russian mafia, caught up with her.
At 140 minutes, “Molly’s Game” is a long sit, made to seem even longer because of Sorkin’s herky-jerky flashback structure and his penchant for repeating smartypants material over and over again. Molly has most of the film’s most ringing monologues, and Chastain delivers them with the proper high-octane oomph, but too much of this film assumes that we care as much about the finaglings and underhandedness of the superrich as Sorkin does. Well, I don’t care as much, or at least Sorkin hasn’t made me want to. (I felt the same way about “The Big Short,” which “Molly’s Game” resembles.)
Sorkin is caught up in the same trap that other filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese with “The Wolf of Wall Street,” have fallen into: He is attempting a grand-scale indictment of the venal money culture but he is too enamored of the venal rich to make the indictment stick. The parade of high-rollers (including a pungent cameo by Michael Cera as “Player X”) is far more interesting than the do-gooders who occasionally pop up to shame Molly.
As was also true in such Sorkin-scripted films as “The Social Network” and “Steve Jobs,” he goes in for some heavy-duty Freudian character analysis. In “The Social Network,” it all comes down in the end to Mark Zuckerberg wanting to impress the girlfriend who jilted him. In “Steve Jobs,” the corporate genius is a world-class narcissist and commitmentphobe. In “Molly’s Game,” Molly gets a psychological read-out from none other than her psychiatrist father, played with hardheaded assurance by Kevin Costner, who has a big scene in which he gives her, in his words, “three years of therapy in three minutes.” (It was more than three minutes.)
All of this jawboning and by-the-numbers psychologizing is made somewhat tolerable because of Elba, who plays Molly’s lawyer, Charlie Jaffey. Elba is one of those actors who radiates his own force field even if he’s sitting still, or just tying his shoe. His no-nonsense performance helps to eradicate some of Sorkin’s nonsense.
Chastain’s performance is a bit more problematic. She’s certainly a powerhouse, but she makes Molly so flinty and defiant that, after a while, a sameness sets into the portrayal. Chastain has a tendency to turn herself into a hard-shelled avenger, as in “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Miss Sloane,” and this performance is in line with those. It should not be necessary, in playing unyielding characters, to clamp down so hard on emotional nuance.
Most movies these days (as opposed to the best television shows) are so laden with substandard dialogue that it might seem peevish to complain about “Molly’s Game,” which revels in high-style jabbering. But Sorkin doesn’t pull off what, say, Paddy Chayefsky, in his scripts for such films as “Network” and “The Hospital,” achieved. He doesn’t create a world in which all those monologues and contretemps really sing. Most of the arias in “Molly’s Game” don’t achieve liftoff, and so neither does the movie. Grade: C+ (Rated R for language, drug content, and some violence.)