Sunday, December 31, 2017

Review: "Molly's Game" is a Whirlwind of Acting Charisma with Some Minor Snags

Scene from Molly's Game
There is an electricity to the first moments of Molly's Game, acclaimed writer Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut. It's the moment that changed skier Molly Bloom's (Jessica Chastain) life. She's at the Olympics taking account of what "the worst sports moment" is before tumbling into an injury, bitterly saying that those who claim losing is the worst anyone can do is an idiot. Within the brevity of this scene and its brisk editing and writing, Sorkin has established himself as a powerhouse capable of making his words mean more than even the best director on The West Wing. However, he's only good at the intense moments that require actors to pontificate. It's when he's required to be a more dynamic filmmaker that things get dicey and keep this from being a runaway hit.

There's a lot that's contradictory about Molly. She is arrested despite not performing illegal gambling operations for over two years. But why did she do it? She had stellar grades and a potential to be a real somebody. Yet here she is working high end poker games. Over the course of the film, the answers become clearer as she opens up to her lawyer (Idris Elba). It's not as easy as making a ton of money. There is a thrill that Sorkin has in divulging the minutiae of this world, making a rather mundane subject into some accessible. Despite never featuring gunshots, the film at times feels like Sorkin's version of a gangster movie, with people performing shady operations in order to get by. Molly's addiction to it isn't far off from Henry Hill in GoodFellas. She enjoys it as much as it scares her. The story's so complicated that it's a miracle that it all comes through as coherently as it does.

It's the central performance of Chastain that makes the movie work. With a variety of elegant yet intimidating outfits, she is a character in the background of a male-dominated movie, but make no mistake. She is the main character who controls everything. Her quiet demeanor as she sits behind a laptop and run spreadsheets gives her access to a world of impulsive recklessness, of which she's only slightly above. Her tough demeanor is something she's developed in the wake of her embarrassing event, and it defines her. She can't look like a fool, which makes the trial that develops all the more ironic. For a former Olympic skier, her disgraced eulogy is only given clarity by her ability to explain why she did it. It wasn't out of desperation, but of some deeper psychological need. Chastain's ability to deliver countless monologues, both on screen and off, gives her confidence a stylistic focus that  is necessary for the film to work. She isn't just manipulating people with her physicality, but also her mental gymnastics. She is strong and confident in spite of her struggles, making her an interesting footnote to sports history.

Sorkin is best when he's doing his infamous tropes. The faster that the dialogue goes, the more invested that the viewer becomes in the moment. The few quiet moments play like waves crashing, allowing a deeper emphasis to develop. Chastain and Elba have an impeccable chemistry that finds the balance between a father raising her daughter, and Molly's own conflicts with her father. Sorkin's symbolism is effective in how he draws emotions in the film's final moments. Beyond the moments that spark are small character moments with any of the various poker players, allegedly based off of popular Hollywood elites, who show strength in their brevity. The film replaces physical movement with quick camera cuts and editing that makes the story as manic as Molly's grasp on control. The moments of wit intersect the characters' egos and make the film into a different kind of poker game; a power struggle between strength and wits, of which Molly plays excellently.

The parts that don't work generally fall in line with what other directors have brought to Sorkin's work. It's the moments that aren't required to titillate, but provide a different kind of dramatic impact. While Sorkin is good at drama, there are moments where he's required to slow down and be quiet, which shows him as a shaky filmmaker who doesn't know what to do. It's here that the dialogue generally weakens and the performances become less memorable. There's enough good will in the rest of the film to make this excusable, but it still has a way of reflecting his weak spots as a first time director. He doesn't quite know how to make the slower moments perfectly fluid with the intensity, sometimes hitting bumps in its execution. There's even a few supporting actors who have a moment to shine, but largely are some of the least memorable characters in Sorkin's writing career, whether by accident or intent.

Molly's Game is a great debut from Sorkin that proves his strength as a writer. Even with a twirling cast of characters, he's able to keep everything balanced and focused around a complicated story. The only issue is that his secret weapon has always been his collaboration with other filmmakers, such as Rob Reiner or David Fincher. They're voices who add a stylistic flourish that smooths over Sorkin's odder tendencies. However, Chastain is more than a revelation here as a lead who is seductive in a way that makes you understand Molly's struggles. She is vulnerable in her confidence, and is one of the most dynamic characters in Sorkin's entire career, managing to deliver dialogue with the best of them. As a whole, it's a brilliant debut but one can only hope that his future solo outings find a way for him to be more successful as a director, since he can't get much better as a writer. 

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