Molly’s Game begins at the top of a competitive ski moguls course, where our protagonist, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), is preparing for a run that can qualify her for the Olympics. After which it jumps forward in time more than a decade, to 2013: now Bloom, in bed at her apartment, awakens to a phone call from the FBI. They’re outside, and they’ve come to arrest her. Then it back ups again to Bloom’s life after skiing, as a young hot twentysomething émigré to Los Angeles, where she goes from working as a cocktail waitress to becoming the de-facto manager of a highly exclusive underground poker game, frequented by a veritable who’s-who of Hollywood elite. Soon it transports us back to 2013. Bloom is in the office of Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), a no-bullshit, kindhearted defense attorney she hopes will take her case. But wait: we need to see Bloom as a preteen, too, growing up with her hard-ass psychologist father, who relentlessly pushes her on the slopes—to be the best, to be a “winner.”
What you've just read is a brief summary of only the first third or so of Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut. Based on the best-selling memoir of the same name, it tells the story of the so-called “Poker Princess,” Molly Bloom, who ran infamous underground poker games for LA-based celebs and, later, New York Wall Street execs and Russian billionaires. Clocking in at a bloated two hours and twenty minutes, Sorkin’s adaptation is a jumbled, all-in approach to an otherwise fascinating tale—the filmmaking equivalent of a card player going full-tilt.
Molly’s Game is about so many things, and is so many movies squished into one, that one gets the sense that it must compensate by explaining itself at every turn. Chastain’s incessant voiceover narration often succeeds in building suspense, as in the scenes at the poker table, where Bloom takes on the role of an omniscient, Sorkin-esque World Series of Poker announcer; Sorkin is nothing if not a master of expositional dialogue. Yet the voiceover threatens to asphyxiate the film when it’s relied on to explain the interiority of its protagonist. It’s one thing to use narration to explain the minutiae of competitive skiing or high-stakes poker; it’s quite another to use it as a constant barometer of a character’s feelings. When Bloom loses control of her LA game to Player X—more on him later—we don’t need her to tell us precisely how depressed she is and why; this is a movie based on a memoir, yes, but it needn't play by those same rules. Such a dependence on telling is not only a disservice to the viewer—it’s a disservice to the actors. Chastain is particularly castrated here: so scarce are her moments of genuine emotional discovery, sans voiceover, that when they do occur, they seem almost out-of-step with the rest of the movie.
And what is the movie really about, anyway? What is this endless explaining in service of? The first half or so—which, in the main plotline, revolves around her job working for middling real estate agent Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), who runs the underground LA game—seems to be about her desire to take some control over her life, following the uncontrollable twist of fate that ended her skiing career. It is also, as her father (Kevin Costner, who delivers the film’s best performance) explains, about her need to have power over powerful men—men like him. When Player X, Bloom’s alias for the famous actor who dominated the table, steals her game out from under her, and she starts her own game in New York, it becomes a movie about female empowerment—about the way in which women must work x times smarter and harder in a man’s world if they are to achieve the same level of success. In the final courtroom scene, which I won’t spoil here, the film offhandedly transforms, in the wake of the housing crisis, into an indictment of unchecked Wall Street greed. Then, in what amounts to a second or third ending, it returns to its original theme of winning, a portrait of success that, in the words of Winston Churchill, "consists of going from failure to failure.” (There’s also an underdeveloped sideplot about addiction buried in here, given Bloom turns to drugs to serve her real addiction—that is, running her games.)
Had Sorkin stuck to any one of these ideas more intently, Molly’s Game might’ve worked. But by trying to give credence to them all, it becomes a suffocating, distended slog. The movie is, to its detriment, a predominantly humorless affair. Perhaps Sorkin’s severest crime is that in his compulsive attempts to explain everything, he ends up squandering his greatest gift: the verbose badinage that cemented “Sorkinese” into our cultural lexicon.
This is not as much a critique of Sorkin, but I can’t help but wonder, too, whether a more imaginative filmmaker might’ve ditched the focus on Bloom altogether, and instead made a movie about Player X. Played by Michael Cera, Player X is the best and most regular player at the LA game. Many have speculated that Player X is Ben Affleck, or Leonardo DiCaprio, or Tobey Maguire, or possibly a composite of all three and/or others. (There's somewhat of a consensus, though, that it's probably mostly Maguire.)
Player X is a megalomaniac, a sadistic son of a bitch who, Bloom informs us, doesn’t enjoy winning so much as ruining people’s lives. His goal is to break his competitors; he wants to see them suffer. On the face of it, Cera is clearly miscast. But he benefits, as an actor, from his reputation as an actor; his indelibly weak-willed characters in Arrested Development and Superbad let any residual evil or egotism go unsuspected. He is quietly terrifying in Molly’s Game, fundamentally blasé about his own wickedness—so much so that when he turns on Bloom, it comes as one of the film’s most genuine and arresting surprises.
While the film doesn’t offer any hints as to Player X’s real identity, it’s hard not to think of Cera, with his pallid mug, sunken eyes and somewhat stifled way of speaking, as Maguire. The simple fact of Michael Cera, with that reserved, nice-guy persona, playing the dark alter-ego of another movie star, whose own characters have been superheroes and/or dreamy romantic leads, is utterly compelling—a real meta-mindfuck you can’t help but want to un-fuck, particularly in a media landscape where this kind of anonymity, as a celebrity, is now all but unheard of.
Unfortunately, Sorkin discards Player X after the first half of the movie, when it picks up and begins again in New York. A day after seeing Molly’s Game, though, I’m no longer thinking of Molly. I’m thinking about Player X. I’m thinking about the man who has it all—the man who may or may not have played a superhero on-screen—who nonetheless gets off on destroying the lives of others, all through the night, in the jaundiced dark of backroom poker games.