Molly's Game (2017)
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Cinematographer: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Producer: Mark Gordon, Amy Pascal, and Matt Jackson
by Jon Cvack
I was in LA sharing a 300 square foot studio apartment when I watched the first episode of The West Wing. Not since The Sopranos have I been so immediately hooked by a show. It pioneered the walk and talk, making the lightning-quick Mamet Speak more accessible and setting a precedent in which characters sitting and talking are rarely more engaging than having them move; somehow using sentimentality to provide hope for what our government could do. It was while working my way through the series that The Social Network (Bill Camp) was released. Combined with Fincher’s gritty style, it provided the perfect duo; creating one of the greatest films from the 2000s, and even more importantly, documenting one of the most significant technological/coshifts in history.
It’s clear from Molly’s Game that Sorkin learned a lot from Fincher, even admitting that he’d call to ask for suggestions. The film embodies the same pace and energy as their collaboration, yet while Fincher was willing to show the depths of selfishness and greed, Sorkin took the opposite approach, maintaining the mile a minute talks and montages, instead opting for the goodness in all of its characters; flirting with a sentimentality that just doesn’t work with the subject matter.
The movie opens up with the year’s strongest introduction by far, as Molly Bloom’s (Jessica Chastain) voice over kicks in over the images of a Mogul Skiing competition in which a nineteen-year-old Molly Bloom could qualify for the Olympics. Bloom opens with a question polled to the world’s leading athletes and coaches - what is the worst sporting event to lose? The Super Bowl? Game Seven of the World Series? Or, in this case, accidentally hitting a tree branch during the Olympic qualifications that tore off her boot and caused her to crash onto the ground? During which Bloom explains how she’s one of the smartest and most talented people you would ever meet, and how the accident led her to a life organizing illegal poker games.
She decides to take a year off before applying to law school, arriving in Los Angeles where she meets up with a young and ailing real estate developer Dean (Jeremy Strong) who arranges high buy-in poker games with some of LA’s biggest businessmen and celebrities. Bloom uses her quick wit to grow the game, upping the stakes and making more money for both herself and Dean, until Dean goes on a losing streak, blaming Molly and eventually firing her. Refusing to back down from such a lucrative endeavor - especially being only in her mid-twenties - Molly decides to steal the players and start her own poker games.
The general rule of law is that it’s legal to host the game so long as you’re not taking a cut of the earnings. To get around the law, Molly worked in tips, in which obviously only the largest tippers would be invited back. She ends up getting involved with a whole host of characters, from true life celebrity referred to as Project X (played by Michael Cera; allegedly based on either Tobey McGuire, Ben Affleck, or Leonardo DiCaprio); a blue-collar player and addict Harlan Eustice (Bill Camp) who gets a million dollars in over his head, falling victim to his gambling addiction; and then the Russian Mafia, who are soon indicted by the FBI, bringing down both Molly and her business.
Similar to The Social Network, the narrative cuts between past and present, where after the intro, Molly is now in her mid-30s and arrested in the middle of the night. Prior to her arrest, she wrote a book called “Molly’s Game” (of which the movie is only loosely based). All of her savings have now been seized, as per conspiracy charges, the government can lien her bank accounts. We learn the nefarious method is a way to force the defendant to reach a bargain, as unless they can find a lawyer willing to work for free, they would literally be unable to afford to go to trial.
Molly is forced to go around town begging lawyers to represent her, eventually coming across successful New York attorney Charles Jaffe (Idris Elba), where the two proceed to discuss the case, trading intellectual jabs as a good Sorkin duo. Molly mentions that she’s owed over $2 million, promising to give the money to Jaffe in exchange for pro bono representation. While I was a little confused over where this arrangement goes, during an awkward exchange during the initial court proceeding where Molly needs to offer her plea, Jaffe continues to shift positions with another defendant (who’s for some reason sitting between Molly and himself), he agrees.
The movie was close to great, but unfortunately, Sorkin’s directing skills just couldn’t match his writing; he’s just too good at characters, and while he did a solid job in creating an energetic story, there were just far too many sentimental moments that I imagine other directors would have flagged right away. The clumsy court scene offered the first taste, later expanding to a scene where Molly runs her hands across the legal books, imagining the life she could have had, which seemed all too obvious by this point. Another was the final reconciliation with her father, who offers a lightning-quick therapy session, offering three reasons they didn’t get along that made a respected academic into an armchair psychologist, all while the scene could have ended with a simple hug rather than another verbal sparring match. What Fincher brought to Sorkin was an ability to show rather than tell in moments when telling would be too maudlin to risk.
Yet my biggest issue with the story is the overall message it contains; showing that a white rich woman from a good family can break the law with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Whether or not you like Molly, she started taking a rake from the game, knowingly got involved with criminals, all while participating in illegal gambling. I can’t imagine a person of color or an individual from lesser means being granted the same immunity. Molly is celebrated for her intelligence and charm; as though because she had a skiing accident and was ridiculously smart and motivated that it’s a reason to hold her up as a paragon of virtue rather than for the criminal she is. On account of her lending over a million dollars to Harlan, at least one family was destroyed. We don’t know how many others were affected. Molly could have gone on to do anything else with her life, and instead, she’s celebrated for surviving the immoral path. Something about it doesn’t sit right for me. As the father says, her whole family had reached tremendous success, with one son going to play for the Philadelphia Eagles and the other becoming a doctor. There’s a strong hint of elitism at play which has left a bad taste in my mouth since the credits rolled.
BELOW: 2017's best intro
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