Saturday, February 10, 2018

Molly's Game: Men Playing Poker

The best part of Molly's Game is, naturally, Jessica Chastain. Unfortunately, the worst part of Molly's Game is how Chastain is wasted in the role, thanks to writer-director Aaron Sorkin's inability to let women speak for themselves. Perhaps it's a question of timing - if this movie had come out a decade ago, I would have praised its storyline and production values, and the sheer novelty of seeing a woman as the protagonist. But nowadays, I expect more from Hollywood, and Molly's Game, while pretending to be the story of an extraordinary woman, quickly devolves into a story about the men around her.

The movie tells the true story of Molly Bloom, a brilliant young woman who was about to qualify for the Olympic skiing team and had been admitted to Harvard Law School. However, after a disastrous accident in her Olympic qualifying heat, she took a break for a year and moved to LA. She eventually started helping a hotshot Hollywood producer arrange his weekly high-stakes poker game with business moguls and celebrities. Naive at first, but quick to learn, Molly discovered she could make way more in tips from these poker games than at a regular job, and eventually, she struck out on her own.

The story is non-linear, with flash forwards to the present where Molly has been indicted by the FBI for allowing Russian mobsters to play at her game in New York. Through flashbacks we get the story of how things escalated to the point where Molly's perfectly legal games devolved into slightly more dubious fare, while in the present, her lawyer (played by the always suave Idris Elba) patiently tries to suss out his client and figure out how he can help a woman who is so adamant not to reveal the names of the people who played at her game. Molly doesn't want to destroy the lives of the men (always men, apparently no women ever played poker) who trusted her and shared sordid details of their lives that would prove incredibly embarrassing to their families. Our heroine has a heart of gold, and she would rather go to jail than compromise her morals. It's all very admirable, but also very cliched.

Molly has a voiceover throughout the movie where she explains what's going down, e.g. a particularly tense poker hand, or skiing the moguls. These sequences are well-done and snappily explain complex concepts. And yet at key moments, it's her lawyer or her emotionally distant father who explains why Molly did the things she did and tells her how she should be feeling. For a character who is so intelligent and introspective, one would think she could explain herself quite easily to the audience, but no, apparently we need the more authoritative voices of Idris Elba and Kevin Costner to get the message across. It's infuriating.

Sorkin's writing style is evident in every scene in this movie. It isn't just the rapid-fire dialogue between characters. It's the random segues into nonsensical facts (did you know the center of the galaxy smells like rum and raspberries? Now you do, but it sure doesn't advance the plot) and the casual elitism where the smart folk spout literary jargon about The Crucible while others are too dumb to discuss James Joyce's Ulysses. Everyone is either proving themselves by trading trivia, or inspiring a smirk by not knowing the answers to obscure questions. In Sorkin's world, people are either literary or Neanderthals, and this movie quickly descends into a mass of stereotypes where our heroine and her lawyer are up against a bunch of buffoons.

Molly's Game isn't particularly boring - my attention didn't waver and I sat through the whole thing without checking my watch. It's well-paced and certainly tells a story about a compelling woman. Unfortunately, that compelling woman is often a bystander in her own story. In another director's hands, perhaps this movie would feel more refreshing. However, as yet another man tells the story of a powerful woman, all we get is Molly's Game: The Men Tell All.

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