Aaron Sorkin deep dives into self-parody from the opening moments of Molly’s Game, with underground poker organizer Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) introducing herself by way of a resumé recitation, recounting her achievements in high school and as an Olympic-class skier before managing to turn her recovery from scoliosis surgery into a testament to her talent. The notion of life itself being subject to meritocratic evaluation has long been a running theme of Sorkin’s work, which often barrages viewers with a list of bona fides in an effort to stress the impressiveness of an individual. But that setup works better when applied to White House staffers, web innovators, and other figures whose actions have social consequences, less so when stacking the deck, so to speak, in favor of a backroom game-runner.
Structured almost identically to his screenplay for The Social Network, Sorkin’s directorial debut meets Molly as the childhood prodigy arriving at a crossroads in young adulthood and seized by a fit of world-dominating ambition. But where Mark Zuckerberg ultimately changed the nature of online communication, Molly finds herself playing host to clandestine poker parties where people like Zuckerberg can casually bet enormous sums of money. Gradually, Molly sets up more professional, ritzy games than her male peers, all while remaining above board and, she stresses, paying taxes on her earnings. The early scenes of her swiftly learning everything about the game of poker as well as organizing events and recruiting players display Sorkin at his best, burning through exposition at a rapid clip and using the pace to simultaneously reinforce the protagonist’s sense of smug superiority.
It’s to the advantage of Molly’s Game that Chastain slips effortlessly into Sorkin’s walk-and-talk rhythms and brings more spark to his writing than it’s enjoyed in years. Molly, nurtured with a childhood of intense study and sports practice, possesses a ruthless focus that lends her a taut body language during poker games, all programmed charm and strict business talk, a sense of impatience with the foibles of others. She regularly dismantles her clients’ excuses and their sexual advances with a measured tone that betrays only exasperation when she has to shut someone down more than once.
If Sorkin’s prose style is most successful at enumerating the petty, anal aspects of his plots, it proves deadly when blatantly airing out themes. Intercut scenes of Molly defending herself from an F.B.I. investigation feature superstar lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who agrees to represent her despite his contempt for her profession because he finds moral value in her refusal to compromise the professional and private lives of her players by selling lurid details to enrich herself. In a series of disturbing rants, Charlie insists that authorities should focus on “real” criminals instead of Molly, as well as warns his self-pitying client, who’s willing to go to jail to avoid surrendering any sensitive information on her players, that women’s jails are places for “drug dealers who get raped by prison guards,” not the likes of some sweet and (mostly) innocent figure like her. Later, when Charlie expresses doubts about subjecting his own daughter to the same kind of rigorous parenting that she received, Molly offers up the ridiculous story about a woman she knew who worked as an escort solely to get a Chanel bag as proof that, if anything, Charlie should be even stricter with his child.
That Sorkin earnestly endorses such reductive treatises on empowerment reveals the stagnation of his social vision. His notion of feminism extends no further than showing Molly hiring a staff of former Playboy Playmates to entice her male players, then revealing that these women are smarter than they look. There’s a blank space at the core of Molly’s Game that the protagonist cannot fill, unable as she is to represent anything beyond her esoteric narrative of unorthodox self-actualization. Sorkin wants Molly to be the flipside of the more pertinent greed of Wall Street and other institutions, failing to realize that both philosophies are still on the same coin.