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Movie Review: 'Molly's Game' Should Have Kept Its Cards Closer to the Vest


Published January 10, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated January 12, 2018 at 11:33 a.m.

Aaron Sorkin likes to explain things. The writer behind "The West Wing," The Social Network, "The Newsroom" and a host of other acclaimed projects has seldom allowed his themes to remain implicit when a smart character could be unpacking them for us.

So it's no surprise that Sorkin's directorial debut, Molly's Game, leaves little unsaid as it retells the strange true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic-class skier who made and lost a fortune running high-stakes poker games. The talk-heavy approach works beautifully as Sorkin introduces us to the colorful subculture of ultra-rich gambling addicts but becomes painfully heavy-handed when he attempts to dissect Molly herself.

And that dissection covers a lot of the film's 140-minute running time. Molly narrates her story in voice-over, introducing childhood vignettes to shed light on her motivations. Her poker career is likewise presented in flashback. Meanwhile, in a present-day framing narrative, Molly justifies her actions to Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), the lawyer she's enlisted after being caught in a federal prosecution of the Russian mobsters who patronized her game.

It's in the flashbacks to Molly's heyday as a poker impresario that the film comes alive. Steely, hyper-observant and competitive, the ex-Olympian enters this world by chance. She quickly figures out how to manipulate powerful men with a weakness for cards — first the Hollywood elite in LA, then financiers, trust funders and mobsters in Manhattan.

Clicking along with Goodfellas pacing, the poker scenes abound in delectable performances and subplots, such as Molly's duel with an unnamed movie star (Michael Cera) who's a shark in slacker's clothing. Sorkin uses his talent for exposition to demonstrate just how perilous Molly's game often was, both to her and the players, beneath its surface glamour.

But whenever the film returns to Molly's heart-to-heart with the lawyer, it loses steam. Instead of crafting an organic relationship between the two characters, Sorkin offers corny dramatic symmetry: While Molly's life was shaped by the conflict with her perfectionist dad (Kevin Costner), Jaffey is himself a dad who burdens his brilliant daughter with extra homework. And, yes, when Molly congratulates this scoldy surrogate father on being a hard-ass, it's a sign that she's coming to terms with her past.

Molly's Game finally goes off the rails in its last 20 minutes, when Sorkin apparently decided that showing Molly dealing with her childhood issues wouldn't suffice. In a succession of scenes — one of them so jaw-droppingly odd that you might mistake it for a dream sequence — he lays out those issues, then uses Molly's two father figures to deliver a verdict on her. Despite the questionable means by which she enriched herself, we are informed, she's a heroine in a corrupt world.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Sorkin said he was attracted to Molly's story by her "decency," a quality exemplified by her refusal to name names of the players in her game. Her discretion cost her a hefty book advance, we're shown in the film, and, later, exposed her to possible jail time.

Certainly, principled silence is admirable and all too rare. But one can't help wishing the filmmaker had observed the virtue of not speaking, too. Rather than doubling down on courtroom rhetoric and allusions to The Crucible, he could have trusted us to find Molly's decency in her actions. At its best, Molly's Game is a lively, entertaining, bracingly articulate film. But the final act may have audiences sorely wishing Sorkin had quit while he was ahead.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Molly's Game"