Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Molly's Game

“Did you know that the centre of our galaxy smells like rum and rasberries?” Only in an Aaron Sorkin script would one character walk up to another and begin a conversation this way. Molly’s Game is full of characters spouting such factoids and anecdotes, and it’s Molly herself who has a monopoly on the spouting. At one point her voiceover digresses into the story of Matthew Robinson, who shattered the 200m record at the 1936 Olympics but is forgotten because he finished second to Jesse Owens by two-hundreths of a second, and this is how Sorkin leads into Molly discussing her more successful brothers. She’s constantly talking about one thing as a way of talking about another. The film opens with an energetic detail-heavy sequence showing her previous life as an aspiring champion skier, with Molly musing in her voiceover about “the worst thing that can happen in sport.” After we've watched and listened to this for a couple of minutes, she adds, “None of this has anything to do with poker.”

Everyone in an Aaron Sorkin movie has a tendency to sound like Aaron Sorkin, and that can undeniably be fun. The rapid-fire repartee in his films is frequently witty and literate, but it can also feel superficial and exhausting, which is how Molly’s Game started to feel a long way before its excessive runtime was up. Molly’s Game is about as Sorkin-ish as it gets, which might be because the writer is also sitting in the director’s chair this time around. In the same way I prefer the films that David Mamet has written for other directors than those he directed himself, Molly's Game lacks a filter or an alternative voice, and Sorkin is not a visually imaginative enough director to compensate for this torrent of talk. He relies too heavily on voiceover to tell the story, and Molly’s narration is so heavily utilised the film sometimes feels like an audiobook, with her constantly telling us exactly what is happening instead of simply letting us watch it happen.

It’s not such a hardship to listen to Chastain, though. She nails the particular cadence and tone of Sorkin's writing and she’s a compelling actress who – as we saw in Zero Dark Thirty and Miss Sloane – is extremely comfortable as this type of sharp, self-possessed, single-minded character. Chastain may have got her break embodying “the way of grace” for Terrence Malick but now she has become more readily associated with an unshakable resolve and a determination to get what’s hers, and she’s particularly adept at showing what it takes to succeed as a woman in a world dominated by men. The film is clearly set up as an examination of patriarchy, which makes it all the more baffling and frustrating that Sorkin reduces everything to Molly’s relationship with her father (Kevin Costner). This strand of the film culminates in a shockingly bad scene late in the film, when Sorkin diagnoses her daddy issues in five minutes of cod-psychology on a park bench.

Perhaps this is why Molly  for all of Chastain’s charisma and skilful shifting of modes  wasn’t an intriguing enough character to hold my attention. Molly’s Game is slick but shallow, with all of Sorkin’s verbosity covering up for an empty centre. The best scene in the film actually has little to do with Molly herself, instead focusing on two of the gamblers at her table. Brad (Brian d'Arcy James) is a notoriously clueless gambler who loses every hand, while Harlan (Bill Camp, superb) is a skilled and cautious player, but his inability to read Brad’s oblivious poker face sends him into a maddening tailspin that ends up destroying his life. This mini-drama contains more emotional truth and a more engrossing, surprising narrative arc than anything else in the movie, and after sitting through Molly’s Game’s 140 minutes, it’s the only thing that has really stuck with me. Well, that and the smell of the galaxy.