I am not only a huge Aaron Sorkin fan, but typically, I am a Sorkin apologist. I’m obsessed. I am that guy who defended The Newsroom even when I knew better. Sports Night and The West Wing are two of my favorite series of all time. I adore Moneyball and The Social Network. What can I say? I love smug idealism delivered with patter, and no one writes patter better than Sorkin.
But Molly’s Game is a mess, and there is no one to blame here but Sorkin. In fact, Jessica Chastain is an almost perfect vehicle for Sorkinese writing, which I know because I saw Miss Sloane last year, the most Sorkin movie ever not written by Aaron Sorkin. It worked because it not only had the fast-talking patter, but a deliriously exceptional female character with actual agency.
That’s something that Molly Bloom lacks in Molly’s Game, and it’s not because the real-life Molly Bloom didn’t have it. I’ve read the Molly Bloom memoir upon which the movie is based, and much of what made that book so successful is that Molly built a poker empire by herself, and she faced the consequences by herself. There are no saviors in Bloom’s book; there are no Idris Elba or Kevin Costner characters to offer her salvation or rescue her from her own criminal actions. In Molly’s Game, Sorkin fancies himself as Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, only he’s not saving a woman from a life in prostitution, he’s saving her from the public’s judgment. He’s using men to vouch for Bloom’s character, but Molly Bloom doesn’t need Sorkin’s goddamn rescuing. Her story speaks for itself.
That story is a fascinating one, although its appeal may be limited. The rise of Molly Bloom from former Olympic skier to the Poker Princess is reasonably interesting, but the salacious details about the poker play of celebrities is what makes the book so riveting. It offers glimpses of Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio at poker tables, and it fashions Tobey Maguire into a sadistic, psychotic villain. Those names (along with others, like Alex Rodriguez) are missing from the movie, unfortunately, and while Maguire — known as “Celebrity X” — is sufficiently evil in Sorkin’s film, it barely scratches the surface of how awful he was in the memoir. My hatred for Maguire after reading the book was blinding. He’s an A+ asshole who gets off on demeaning women and on taking advantage of weak poker players not out a sense of gamesmanship or even money, really, but because it makes him feel more powerful. Maguire has whatever the poker equivalent of a Napoleon complex is.
I’m not entirely sure why Sorkin didn’t use the real names of celebrities in the movie — because Hollywood protects its own? Or because so much of the movie is fictionalized that it could invite defamation lawsuits? — but it deprives the story of its most alluring draw. In its place are the bones of the memoir framed by Sorkin inventions: A noble, idealistic lawyer (Idris Elba) hired to defend Bloom against racketeering charges and a subplot concerning Bloom and the asshole of a father (Kevin Costner) she sought to rebel against. Elba is fine here, delivering a terrific monologue during a deposition that I might have loved a lot more if 1) Elba could better deliver the Sorkin patter (he’s no Bradley Whitford) and 2) if it were necessary. Costner’s character, meanwhile, is not only unnecessary but borderline offensive, and a speech between Chastain and Costner near the end of the film undoes what little goodwill I had built up for the movie.
Where Molly’s Game succeeds the most, however, is when Sorkin sticks to the source material. It’s a fascinating story of a 23-year-old who starts out as a personal assistant to a tyrannical, hot-headed bully and — through Machiavellian means — engineers control of his poker game, raises the stakes, and profits tremendously from it until Tobey Maguire (or “celebrity X,” in the movie) takes it away from her for no other reason than because he hated that she has become the center of attention. Defeated and depressed, Bloom relocates to New York and builds up another mini-poker empire until she inadvertently gets involved with the Russian mob. That’s when her life — and her empire — begin to unravel.
There’s plenty enough material in the memoir to sustain a movie, but much of Bloom’s story is given short shrift to make way for Sorkin’s “heroic” patronizing male characters. It’s aggravating as hell, and combined with Sorkin’s odd pacing (this is his directorial debut, and it’s apparent) and his refusal to allow Bloom to be the hero — or villain — of her own story makes Molly’s Game a wholly frustrating endeavor.