Monday, 8 January 2018

Film Review: Aaron Sorkin directs Molly's Game, turns a winning hand into a forgettable one

Aaron Sorkin has, for me, given us some of the best film screenplays in recent memory. His fast paced script for David Fincher's The Social Network was electrifying, his structural work on Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs bordered on ingenious. As a man armed with just a pen, Sorkin has turned even the most simplistic stories into something truly notable. When weaponised with a camera and a cast and a whole film's production, though, the results are a disappointing step down.

Molly's Game is Sorkin's directorial debut, telling the very much true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) - a professional skier who, some years after a career-ending injury, began running high-stakes poker games with A-list players. Having initially started off as a personal assistant for the man who formerly ran the games, Molly soon ditches him after their relationship turns bitter and steals away most of his players for herself. A couple of years down the line, though, and Molly is facing federal charges, recruiting big-time lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to help her win the case.

Sorkin opts for a non-linear approach to his storytelling here, and it throws his film off balance almost immediately. We begin with Molly at her last ever skiing race, where she was ultimately injured, with Chastain's voice narrating over the top discussing the worst things that can happen to professional athletes. There's just something off about the scene, Sorkin's narration dialogue feeling entirely out of place in conjuncture with what we're seeing and even more misplaced in retrospect. When the film begins moving Sorkin's efforts start to improve, but he's consistently hampered by his repeated cutaways back to the present in Jaffey's office, where very little dramatic tension or character definition is ever dug up.

Momentum is gained and lost almost endlessly, but the film never settles into a groove long enough for either narrative thread to fully soar. Remember that jaw dropping sequence around the middle of Steve Jobs, the montage to end all montages? You'll find none of that electrifying dialogue or pacing here, as Molly's Game loses steam every time it shows signs of gaining it. That the film eventually lands on a prolonged dialogue piece between Molly and her father feels particularly misjudged, as whatever character work Sorkin has given Molly across the film is overbearingly forced onto us out of her father's mouth - it halts the film dead, and sounds bad doing it. Sorkin, usually a wizard with words, has never presented such sloppy dialogue before.

There's also the case of Sorkin's direction frequently coming across as amateur or not fully realised. He usually trusts us with his complex, lightning-paced dialogue, but here he loses the ball - zingy poker scenes are narrated suitably by Chastain, but Sorkin chooses to bring the cards on screen in little animations that rarely match the film's tone. A brief violent interlude in the film's middle act is particularly messy, Sorkin's camera randomly flitting in and out of jittery slow motion and fading to and from black at bizarre intervals. There's a real sense of a man armed with a good script who isn't sure how to bring that story to life, and it's tough not to feel like this could be a real winner had Sorkin passed the directorial reins to someone more experienced.

Fortunately Sorkin has Jessica Chastain taking on the titular character, and boy was this actress born for this role. Chastain brings a levity to Molly Bloom, but also thundering confidence and smirk-inducing sharpness. It's a role filled with the kind of dramatic flair that Chastain has nigh-on perfected, but also the rare one to also allow her to have a little fun - there was very little humour or flirting in Zero Dark Thirty or Miss Sloane. I'm not sure I could quite call this Chastain's best work yet - not with the just mentioned Kathryn Bigelow film in her back catalogue - but it's the latest in an impressively long line of winning turns. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Elba, an actor of serious dramatic presence who seems to forget to bring any to his lawyered up role here - he does a lot of shouting, but rarely does it turn into actual tension or emotion.

Molly's Game is entertaining enough to pass the time, and its energetic editing and snazzy flourishes will likely please the masses, but a lot of the load bearing work here is unstable. Sorkin's script doesn't put in the required character work, his direction ranges between overly stylised and just plain poor, and the film's structure proves more frustrating that enlightening. There's a good film buried in here somewhere, maybe even a great one, but Chastain, good as though she may be, can't quite bring it to fruition singlehandedly. Molly's Game could've been a Royal Flush from a professional, but instead it's more like a first-time player presenting a hand that isn't quite as well formed as they think it is.

In A Sentence

Despite a typically great lead performance from Jessica Chastain, Molly's Game can't seem to cover up its underdeveloped script, messy structure and haphazard direction.

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