Aaron Sorkin was always going to outgrow the need for a director. The creator of The West Wing and the man responsible for the crackling, ruthlessly sharp scripts behind The Social Network, A Few Good Men and Moneyball is so one-minded – his dialogue so instantly recognisable – that his vision has frequently outshone that of his director. Steve Jobs isn’t a Danny Boyle film; it’s an Aaron Sorkin film. Charlie Wilson’s War doesn’t belong to its veteran director Mike Nichols; it belongs to the man responsible for writing its barbed, barked insults, and its razor sharp comedy.
So with Molly’s Game, his directorial debut, Sorkin has finally and inevitably taken full artistic control, penning a blistering if uneven script and overseeing proceedings with a distinctly fresh-faced naivete. The end result? A bizarre if admirable mess that feels somehow both overtly polished and cringeworthily roughshod.
As it goes with even failed Sorkin projects, there’s a lot to love here.
Based on the true story of Molly Bloom (played with astonishing class and grace by Jessica Chastain), the so-called poker princess and one-time world class skiier, Molly’s Game is a film about ambition. After an accident derails her promising sporting career, Bloom begins climbing the ranks of the US poker scene, hosting high-stakes games frequented by celebrities (most notably Player X, a supposed mash-up of Leonardo Di Caprio and Ben Affleck, played with mawkish charm by Michael Cera) and running ever afoul of the Russian mob.
Sorkin does an admirable job communicating what makes poker exciting – not to mention its basic rules – with enough nuance to ensure novices won’t be lost and experts won’t feel spoken down to. What he is significantly less good at, mind you, is allowing for some kind of moral ambiguity. Bloom is, in Sorkin’s eyes, a kind of contemporary saint; a figure of impossibly ironclad values who doesn’t let her association with less savory mobster types diminish her character.
It’s a shame. Sorkin shines most when turning real life people into amoral monsters – think his nerdy and vicious Zuckerberg, the rat at the heart of The Social Network – and Molly’s Game suffers from its overt attempts to valorise Bloom. And never is that heavy moralistic hand clearer than in the film’s extended and unfulfilling climax, which spends so long tying up loose ends and fawning over the real life Bloom’s reputation that it leaves a particularly sour taste.
Still, as it goes with even failed Sorkin projects, there’s a lot to love here. The film might be some two hours and twenty minutes long, but it doesn’t drag for a second, and the Preston Sturges on crack dialogue is carried admirably by Chastain and the charismatic Idris Elba, playing her beleaguered attorney. It’s just a disappointment that audiences, like the power-hungry Bloom herself, are likely to leave cinemas wanting just that little bit more.