The most surprising thing about Aaron Sorkin’s directing debut, Molly’s Game, is that it’s about a woman. Sorkin is one of Hollywood’s most famous screenwriters, which is sort of like winning a tallest little person contest, but his distinctive rapid-fire, plugged-in style has permeated such films as A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs. Those movies have been largely about guys who know something that the rest of the world doesn’t yet and act accordingly. Based on a similarly titled memoir by Molly Bloom, this one is about a woman who acts like she knows everything but is actually frantically working to keep her head above water. The low-temperature result shows how greatly Sorkin has relied on his directors to put his writing over, because he has trouble doing it himself.
Jessica Chastain stars as Molly, an Olympic hopeful freestyle skier until she suffers a catastrophic spinal injury. Thrown headlong into the workforce, she parlays a crappy job working for a douchebag L.A. real-estate agent (Jeremy Strong) — and running his weekly poker game on the side for no extra pay — into her own underground high-stakes poker game that attracts movie stars and royalty. When she’s run out of L.A., she sets up in New York, where she runs into trouble after Russian mobsters show up to her table. The story is told mostly in flashback to her lawyer (Idris Elba), who’s trying to clear her of corruption charges brought by the feds.
Sorkin knows his poker and drops terminology on us without stopping to spell everything out, trusting us to follow the action generally even if we don’t know our rivers from our flops. The whole thing is spiced with typically Sorkinesque references to physics, astronomy, and sports, and you just know Molly is going to differentiate herself from the character of Molly Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses for the benefit of a sad-sack player (Chris O’Dowd).
The trouble is that everything feels like too much of the same thing. Molly describes her drug use to cope with the pressures of running games six nights a week, but we don’t see it affecting her behavior or her judgment. Nor do we feel the charge she gets out of handling all the raging male egos at her table. Amid all the torrents of verbiage, Sorkin seems to misplace his script’s emotions. Everyone, even Chastain, seems to be on autopilot, and Molly’s late reconciliation with her hard-charging psychiatrist dad (Kevin Costner) fails to raise the pulse. The only actor who comes off as his own person rather than Sorkin’s chattering marionette is Michael Cera as an appalling jerk of a movie star who squashes Molly’s L.A. game for no reason except to show that he can. (Fun fact: This character is almost wholly based on Tobey Maguire.) Molly’s Game is so thoroughly worked out that its drama never gets going, because neither its characters nor you have any chance to take a breath.
Starring Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, based on Molly Bloom’s memoir. Rated R.