Tuesday, 2 January 2018
The queen: "Molly's Game"
After leaving The West Wing and politics behind, Aaron Sorkin has started talking business, a language movie executives better understand. In a run of scintillating yet variably directed feature-length scripts, Sorkin has pondered start-up ethics (The Social Network), efficiency measures (Moneyball), even how brands can serve as fronts for personality cults (Steve Jobs). Those movies, staffed by alphas and would-be alphas trying time and again to have the last word, were powered by a certain dorm/locker/boardroom testosterone - the executives doubtless saw themselves in there somewhere - so Molly's Game, the script with which Sorkin has elected to make his directorial debut, counts as a development of sorts: it finds the man who gifted the world such vivid female characters as CJ Cregg and Amy Gardner giving greater consideration to the place a woman might occupy at the negotiating table.
Sorkin does this via the real-life figure of Molly Bloom (played here by Jessica Chastain), the so-called "Poker Princess" who, after a brief, abruptly halted career as a mogul skier that established her credentials as a risktaker, came to notoriety - and eventually Federal attention - by operating a weekly card game for highrollers with cash to throw around. These games, which began in the early years of this century, coincided with the hyperinflation of the housing market, the emergence of the 1% and the dotcom boom - you half-expect to see Messrs. Zuckerberg and Jobs showing up among the rapid turnover of faces at Molly's table - so 21st century movie convention dictates their host should be headed for a second, potentially lethal fall. This, in turn, came when the vast sums of money being generated in the deluxe hotel suites selected for the occasion caught the eye and the nose of the Russian mob.
What's refreshing about Sorkin's approach is how it invites us to make up our own minds about the figure at the centre of these events. Chastain's Molly emerges as the very image of the so-called "difficult woman", one whose headstrong voiceover - sourced from the pages of Bloom's memoir - seeks to impress something, very forcefully indeed, upon the viewer: the story of how she literally rebuilt herself from scratch in the wake of the spine-wrecking injury that put paid to her sporting ambitions. We're shown where some of her self-determination comes from in an early smattering of scenes with overbearing father-coach Kevin Costner, but it's often a matter that Molly was the smartest person in rooms otherwise occupied by obvious flops and fall guys - a position of superiority that lasted until she, too, played the wrong card, and became something of a patsy herself.
While the character is on the rise, Molly's Game makes the best use yet of Chastain's Sphinx-like smile. You buy immediately and absolutely that graspy men would set down anything up to a cool half-mil they don't have for a shot at Molly's heart, or at least her attention; equally, though, that these passing chancers were just figures on the spreadsheet of a woman trying to get ahead in the world. Molly Bloom - who may, in the final reckoning, be possessed of the world's most impervious poker face - remains an enigma that her clients, and any other onlookers (including you and I), delight in puzzling out: yes, we see this alpha female going toe-to-toe with bosses, punters and publishers, but we're also shown how she often served as a mother confessor or counsellor to her wobblier cardsharps, offering cheats a gentle but keenly felt slap on the wrist, and born losers a spot in rehab. Sorkin constantly extends our line of credit on Molly as a character, then reels it in; he shows her trying to read other people, even as he sets us to wondering what her deal really was.
Everybody else is more or less secondary to this process, although Idris Elba projects a useful, bedrock solidity as Molly's defence lawyer Charlie Jaffey, and there are fun bits for Michael Cera, Justin Kirk and Bill Camp as examples of the very different styles of players (and men) drawn to Molly's chambers like moths to a flame. For actors, the attraction is even more obvious - the chance to inhale even a couple of lines of Sorkin's snap-crackle-and-pop dialogue, typeset heroin of which one hit is surely never enough. As a piece of writing, Molly's Game is a signature mix of high-level briefing, chewy anecdote and insider gossip, socked over in pure Sorkinese: quasi-mathematical phrasemaking ("Don't be breaking the law when you're breaking the law"), asides on the legitimacy of the key corporate phrase "verticality", characters whose opening gambit is to enter a scene wondering what the centre of the universe smells like.
I still wonder whether Sorkin's gift isn't for authorial fireworks - tossing out firecracker lines and characters - rather than exploring themes in depth: he's a showman, above all else. Yet he's a canny enough writer to draw a deft contrast between the Costner and Elba schools of parenting (a refinement of Steve Jobs' concerns), and to maintain a clear line of thought on how all his dialogue is directed: that voiceover sounds like Molly's defence of herself and her choices, where those scenes without it serve as the case for the prosecution. Some digressions strain credulity - there's a touch of the Charlie's Angels about Molly recruiting code-writing Playmates to bolster her operation, while a last-reel father-daughter reunion would feel even more contrived if it weren't so finely acted - but much of it is wildly entertaining, and commendably adult in its line of address: Sorkin now seems just about the only writer in America who missed or shredded the memo that insists characters be 100% sympathetic. You and your viewing companion(s) may emerge from this game with diverging takes on its prime mover, the relationships she cultivated, and her complicity in what came to pass - but in this age of straight-as-a-die superheroes, it's encouraging to start the New Year in the company of a protagonist who is properly, at times thrillingly, complex.
Molly's Game is now playing in cinemas nationwide.