Sorkin’s directorial debut disappoints with “Molly’s Game”

February 2, 2018

Aaron Sorkin is a good writer. Maybe even a great writer—his work is certainly recognizable. Any Sorkin script—from “A Few Good Men” to “The West Wing” to “Steve Jobs”—emphasizes dialogue over just about anything else. Sorkin is known for his clever and witty dialogue which dominate his film and television projects. His dialogue is never realistic, but it is fun to watch—usually in long “walk-and-talk” tracking shots, during which Sorkin’s actors exchange volleys of clever ideas back-and-forth at a speed no real person could ever keep up with. We mere mortals may not be able to replicate the type of dialogue Sorkin writes in our day-to-day lives, but we can appreciate it. Just ask anyone who’s fallen in love with “The West Wing” (they’ll tell you at length, trust me).

The takeaway from “Molly’s Game,” Sorkin’s first time behind both camera and script, is that a lot of his success has to be attributed to his collaborators. The perfect example of a great team-up between a Sorkin script and a great director is “The Social Network.” It is Sorkin’s best movie because auteur David Fincher is able to balance the good dialogue on the page with a distinct visual style. And really all of Sorkin’s films have been bolstered by a talented eye behind the camera: “Steve Jobs” was directed by Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), “A Few Good Men” was directed by Rob Reiner (“The Princess Bride”), etc. Sorkin’s scripts tend to attract good directors who can fill in the areas where his scripts are lacking, while preserving that delicious snappy dialogue.

So what does pure Sorkin look like? Well, it’s a mixed bag. The good news is the fun, stylish dialogue is all over “Molly’s Game,” and if that is all you’re looking for I doubt you’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, Sorkin’s problems as a writer are left unfiltered. It is unlikely he’ll be back in the director’s chair anytime soon.

“Molly’s Game” follows “poker princess” Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a high powered ex-athlete as she navigates the world of high stakes gambling while avoiding prison. If that sentence sounds a little convoluted, it’s because the film is. Sorkin’s script jumps between Molly trying to qualify for the Olympics to her attempts to win over a lawyer (a forgettable Idris Elba) a decade later, and then proceeds to cut back and forth constantly. I love a non-linear narrative, but here the editing kills any sense of narrative momentum, and makes it difficult to get invested in either Molly’s rise or her fall (especially when we’re subjected to unnecessary flashbacks to Molly’s childhood). Perhaps another director could have sorted or reorganized this story, but the movie is lost under Sorkin’s direction.

Jessica Chastain gives a pretty solid performance. Cold-as-ice, Chastain excels in her role as protagonist Molly Bloom, convincing the audience of the character’s strength, intellect and dedication to her principals. The only flaw in Chastain’s performance is her voiceover. I don’t recall Sorkin ever relying on voiceover in his other scripts, but it is thrown at the audience in “Molly’s Game.” It’s clear the voiceover was meant to help connect the dots through the frantic editing and quickly deliver much-needed exposition. In movies, however, the camera should be able to tell the audience the story; neither the director nor the audience should need to rely on voiceover.

Sorkin’s third act follows the exact same template as his other screenplays: The protagonist has intense conversations back-to-back, meaning we’re supposed to believe an individual’s entire psychology could be explained to them in less than an hour. Furthermore, Sorkin has never been good at giving his characters vices; when “dangerous” elements to the story are introduced it’s hard to take them seriously. Later, we’re supposed to believe Molly’s new addictions matter, but Sorkin’s use of voiceover gives Chastain laughable lines like “and then I started taking drugs” or “I went home and tried not to take drugs.” Sorkin made the manifestation of the character’s addiction consist solely of Chastain holding her head and looking tired. Sorkin’s lack of an edge has never been clearer.

In the hands of a superior director, perhaps “Molly’s Game” could have been the next great Sorkin film, instead of the jumbled and mediocre movie it turned out to be. Chastain does her best, and the dialogue is as snappy as ever, but the finished product leaves a lot to be desired. I still have hope for Sorkin as a writer, but more importantly, I have a lot more respect for his past collaborators.

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