Molly's Game review – Aaron Sorkin's poker drama is a bet that fails to pay off

The Oscar-winning screenwriter makes his directorial debut with the long and rambling tale of ‘poker princess’ Molly Bloom, brought half-heartedly to life by a miscast Jessica Chastain

Oscar-winning monologue-spinner Aaron Sorkin’s decision to dominate not one but two seats behind the scenes for his directorial debut Molly’s Game makes complete sense to anyone who’s ever seen an Aaron Sorkin film. Because while at times he plays very well with others, with age he’s become the sole author of his work, unwilling to share the stage with anyone else. Steve Jobs was a suffocating example of this, a set of fine actors and an accomplished director drowning in Sorkinese.

Tidily removing at least one competing force, he’s made himself the main architect of what should technically be his magnum opus. His choice of subject is an initial surprise: tabloid-dwelling “poker princess” Molly Bloom. Surprising because Sorkin’s track record of writing female characters has been patchy to say the least and he’s been under fire on numerous occasions for what’s been perceived as hostility towards the opposite sex. On the press tour for Steve Jobs, he claimed that this film was something of an amends-maker: the true story of a strong-willed woman unfairly treated and underestimated because of her gender.

The facts of Bloom’s life certainly give him a lot to work with. Played by Jessica Chastain from the age of 20 (a stretch) to 32, we first meet her at the end of one journey as another is about to begin. Bloom was a supremely talented skier, close to making the Olympic team but an accident left her in search of another opportunity. Moving from Colorado to California, she gained employment as the personal assistant to a man who runs underground poker games on the side. She quickly and quietly became the brains behind the operation, corralling and controlling the A-listers who congregate weekly to play. But cut to present day and she’s waking up to find the FBI outside her door, waiting to take her in.

Sorkin’s script glides between the two timelines as Bloom recounts her ascent and descent within the high-stakes poker world to her lawyer, played by a shakily accented Idris Elba. We also get glimpses of her childhood and a fractured relationship with her therapist father, embodied by a grizzled Kevin Costner. In a bloated runtime of 140 minutes, we get a lot, arguably too much. Sorkin is spellbound by his subject, fascinated by the many details of her admittedly impressive life, but the magic he clearly feels fails to translate on screen. The experience of watching Molly’s Game feels a bit like hearing a long, rambling story from someone high on something, a frantic, exhausting splurge of information that never truly justifies its existence.

Rapid-fire dialogue is an easily parodied Sorkin trademark and as his films begin, it often takes a minute to adjust to his rhythm. In his finer works, there’s an elegance that accompanies this speed but in Molly’s Game, it’s frustratingly absent. In the first scene, we’re bombarded with an overstuffed, overwritten voice-over, delivered with dry disinterest by Chastain, and it becomes his crutch throughout, oversharing exposition with surprising clumsiness. There’s a slickness missing, a sass that would turn Bloom into the Erin Brockovich-style figure that Sorkin seems to see, and the scenes that should sizzle tend to fizzle out instead.

Chastain is clearly a fine actor (as showcased in both The Help and Take Shelter) but is so often miscast; whether it be as a gothic villain in Crimson Peak, a Polish animal lover in The Zookeeper’s Wife or even as a doggedly determined operative in Zero Dark Thirty, she struggles to disappear into her characters. This is another role that, despite apparent effort on her part, she just doesn’t sell. There’s a liveliness that we don’t get from her line delivery and while the script keeps reminding us that Bloom is a magnetic figure, Chastain doesn’t convince us that such an assertion is true. Her scenes with Elba are also lacking a vibrancy, there’s an electricity that we crave and it’s only in the last stretch that we finally get something, in a strongly performed argument between the pair.

As a director, Sorkin is competent but uneven. He attempts a few gimmicky flourishes (a video game-esque display of the cards being held in a poker game and some other pointless on-screen graphics), but otherwise it’s a plainly told tale matched with a hopelessly dated rock score. The visuals do little to distract us from the indigestible amount of information being thrown our way and the absurd two-hour-plus length focused entirely on a character who Sorkin sees as a crusading hero but fails to come across as anything more than a resourceful entrepreneur. Even when she adopts a serious drug addiction, it’s told in a sprightly grit-free manner, Sorkin missing the chance to delve that much deeper.

While it’s refreshing to see a film about a woman succeeding in business, it’s disappointing that it starts and ends with an underwhelmed whimper. Molly’s Game is sadly one without any winners.

  • Molly’s Game is screening at the Toronto film festival and is released in the US on 22 November and in the UK on 29 December


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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