Cinema: Dazzling Banter Makes 'Molly's Game' a Winner

Words come fast and frequent in Molly’s Game, a film that chronicles the rise and fall of the titular character, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), who at one point ran the most lucrative high-stakes poker tournament in the nation. It's a story so extraordinary that it could've easily strayed into exaggeration, but, in the hands of writer/director Aaron Sorkin, it manages to keep all the intensity of a high-stakes thriller without losing sight of the real life woman at its core.

Adapted from the memoir of the same name, Molly’s Game bounces back and forth between two kinetic narratives. The first, set in the present, follows Molly as she’s arrested by the FBI for illegal gambling and forced to throw herself at the mercy of a straight-arrow attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). The second follows Molly’s rise to power, and her headstrong youth, where she clashed with her psychiatrist father Larry (Kevin Costner). There’s a whole lot to unpack in both-- either one could really sustain its own narrative-- particularly with Molly’s scattered narration giving each scene a snappy, impatient rhythm, but Sorkin, the screenwriting mastermind behind films like 2010’s The Social Network and 2014’s Steve Jobs, manages to stay on top of his elusive subject and churn out a riveting biographical drama.

The film continues Sorkin’s exploration of powerful, emotionally remote people, and in some ways, can be seen as a companion piece to his Oscar-winning work on The Social Network. Both films find the artistry and intrigue in their respective niches (Facebook, poker), as well as a banter that yields more quotables-per-scene than virtually any writer working today. This is a verbose film, there’s no two ways about it, and those who prefer their films to “show and not tell”, may grow tired of the rat-tat-tat exchanges that recall a dramatized His Girl Friday. Those familiar with Sorkin’s legendary style, however, will be satisfied and then some.

As Molly, Chastain gives her most charismatic performance to date. She is dynamite as the unlikely schemer, a woman who regularly finds herself the smartest and fastest person in the room. She and Sorkin strike an effective balance in this regard, allowing Molly’s keen intellect to shine through in every scene, while highlighting the inherent loneliness that comes with the world she’s created. It’s lonely at the top, and the higher Molly climbs the ladder the more susceptible she is to the brutality that comes with it. The Oscar nominee commands every scene in the film, effortlessly burning through pages of dialogue while holding her own against stalwalts like Elba and Costner. The former gives another career-best performance, putting forth Jaffey’s decency without coming off preachy, while the latter hasn’t been this devilishly charismatic in decades.

The scene where Larry and Molly reconvene at a skating rink is perhaps the most formidable piece of writing that Sorkin gives us here. Stripped of business or legal pretense, the film is stripped down to a wounded daughter airing out her grievances towards a bitter father. Molly’s “Rosebud” if you will, the scene expands on the familial themes that Sorkin teased in Jobs while integrating it more seamlessly into the narrative. Sorkin is himself a father, and the patriarchal concern exercised in the scene feels as though it strikes a personal chord in the best possible way.

Admittedly, given that Molly’s Game is Sorkin’s first outing in the director’s chair, there are a few instances where he becomes a slave to his written word. After a thrilling opening that sees Molly recall her failed bid for Olympic stardom, the film takes a bit to regain momentum; spinning its wheels until Molly has a chance to organize her first poker game. The film irons out its kinks from there, however, suggesting that Sorkin is already beginning to refine his directorial eye. He may lack the impenetrable craft that David Fincher brought to Network, or the exuberance that Danny Boyle brought to Jobs, though placing third behind these two is nothing to shake a stick at.

In no way does Molly’s Game break cinematic ground, but its dazzling cast of actors and breathless momentum makes for a straightforward drama that's tough to resist. Few come sharper.