By Joe Hammerschmidt
As he did six years ago with his script for Moneyball, Aaron Sorkin certainly knows how to profile an unexpected hero in the world of sports. Of course, I’ll know him better for his TV work that managed to show off a myriad of heroes and villains in higher-ranked workplaces (The Newsroom just never lasted long enough). What I noticed out of Molly’s Game, an overdue transition for Sorkin into feature directing, is a bold middle-ground where a one-time sports hero chases new glory in the business of underground gambling. Leave it to Oscar-winner Jessica Chastain to give the character an overwhelming professional intricacy.
The film is centrally an intense, extensive character study film, drawing inspiration from the true-life story of one Molly Bloom (Chastain). An intended law school prodigy with coupled aspirations of following in his brother’s footsteps in the realm of pro skiing, her Olympic dreams are reluctantly dashed by a cruel brush with fate. The value of accepting fate as commonplace is retained as a relevant theme that Sorkin extracts into the written word throughout, correlating Bloom’s dramatic narrative. Her past catches up with her as the impacts of her gambling ring, an arena she slowly entered into through daytime work with a sleazy small-time pit boss (Jeremy Strong) to keep a steady income in the grittiness of LA before law school, prompt a federal court case. With reluctant attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) lending a helpful ear, Molly essentially catches him and the viewer up with the disastrous self-downturn, and just where her strategies had gone wrong.
How Sorkin framed his story, adapted from Bloom’s autobiography, is almost like viewing a psych profile in flipbook form. It’s quick, easy to follow, yet a tad crude if the near-seductive air of those poker games strikes the right chord. Chastain responds appropriately by playing a mature, in the guise of a nearly frightened butterfly who struggles under the weight of her own hubris, her own mystique. She may seem like an attractive figurehead, but she’s still level on the business side, even as greed consumes her professionalism. There may be more reasons to the contrary Jessica delivers one of my favorite singular character performances in 2017 that may be easy to pick up in repeat viewings.
Elba, meanwhile, is the steady rock preventing Molly from completely diving off the deep end ahead of the trial. Despite a noticeable quirk to suppress his natural accent, his presence is more than welcome, it almost completes the film, not just as a sounding board for Molly while they build her case from multiple secret files. I dare you to not feel moved whenever the man speaks on behalf of his client, notably in the third act.
It’s in the concluding minutes where the film does experience some minor pacing issues and a minimal lack of payoff involving Molly and her father’s relationship. Almost keenly, Costner is rather underused except for in flashbacks, and it’s not always as the supportive father figure one would hope for. Yes, he was also Molly’s skiing coach, but that “competitive fundamentals” approach need not bleed into his parenting unless it was deemed acceptable of sufficient closure in the end. Sorkin, as epic as he wanted to make this story, could’ve helped in this plight by possibly cutting the runtime by 20 minutes. Costner is too perfect in the scenes we do see him in, it may have helped to offer him a larger role earlier on instead of just sitting on the sidelines until it is most convenient to put him in play.
It appeared as if Sorkin thought his work out too well, until the ending. Yes, it’s a tad underdeveloped but still coherent. I can forgive any slight anomalies that more picky viewers will find an excuse to walk out. As one sees the tangled web of Molly’s Game unfold, the good may outweigh the bad. A small leading cast makes for a smaller focus on what matters most in the story; keep an eye open for Michael Cera (nearly playing himself), Bill Camp and Chris O’Dowd (succeeding at a flawless Brooklyn drawl) as obstacle-ridden regulars in Molly’s circle of friends with strong, supportive energy. Jessica Chastain is what sells the story, pulling all the stops to keep it engaging against Aaron’s written skill, and at long last, his skill as a trusted helmer. It’s not quite perfect, it does overstay its welcome, and it’s rather rough around the edges; but the final product is still nothing short of Sorkin brilliance, full of warmth, irony, and much room to improve on for next time. An easy watch for year’s end, especially for those keenest on dramas with a quickly meaningful pulse, so long as we don’t allow it to beat too fast. (B+)
Molly’s Game opens Christmas Day at select theaters in the area; Regal Meridian in Seattle, Bellevue’s Cinemark Lincoln Square, and others; wide debut January 5; rated R for language, drug content and some violence; 140 minutes.