'Molly's Game' film review: Sorkin was born to write for badass Chastain
The combination of an outright badass Jessica Chastain and a sharply-honed Aaron Sorkin script almost makes the biographical drama "Molly's Game" (opening in theaters nationwide Dec. 25) one of the best films of the season - almost. Half of the film is two of today's strongest actors trading barbs - the other half is a voice-over dependent docudrama.
In short: The true story of Molly Bloom (Chastain), a former Olympic-level athlete, who went on to run exclusive high-stakes poker games catering to Hollywood's elite - until she becomes a target of the FBI. Also stars Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera and Chris O'Dowd.
Chastain and Elba prove themselves more than capable to tackling one of the most daunting challenges in modern Hollywood - a Sorkin screenplay. Elba, playing Bloom's "not even a little bit shady” defense attorney, stands toe-to-toe with the whip-smart and assertive Bloom. Chastain radiates relentless internal strength and bold force-of-will. Their dynamic energizes "Game" as the two characters engage each other in an unconventional battle of wills - between two characters ostensibly on the same side.
Although Elba is not really playing a character, he perfectly embodies a legal mechanism questioning Bloom's motives and valiantly working to clear her in court. The attorney pushes Bloom to save herself from prosecution by any means necessary. Usually this type of transparent personification strips the character of dimension - but Elba's performance is so thoroughly forceful that it overcomes the fact that the lawyer is a walking-talking plot device.
While the Chastain-Elba half is a winning pairing of dynamic actors - however, the other half of "Game" (tracking Bloom's rise from injured athlete to "poker princess") relies too heavily on the crutch of voice over. Writer-director Sorkin just directly uses Chastain's narration to tell Bloom's story in a rather disappointingly straightforward manner. At times, the voiceover just inelegantly explains what Bloom was thinking and who her friends were. Storytelling by exposition is a lackluster use of cinema that is usually a deathblow to any film. The fact that the narration is crafted by Sorkin and performed by Chastain is the only saving grace of a story thread that is reliant on the worst form of storytelling.
While "Game" excels during Chastain and Elba's scenes and manages not to implode despite itself during the narrated flashback scenes, the out-of-place b-plot focused on Bloom's father (played by Costner) is the film's weak link. His character contributes very little to Bloom's subtext or character arch. His scenes stall out the film's momentum anytime Costner's character appears on screen. And his final key scene is eye-rollingly frustrating both in its ridiculous coincidence and in its clunky execution. What worse, the interactions between Bloom and her father belie a rhythmic flatness across the film - in other words, the characters sound the same. Sorkin's trademark cadence permeates the film - while it works in the exchanges between Bloom and her lawyer, its also present in the back-and-forth between Bloom and her father.
Final verdict: Chastain once again proves her mettle as the strong willed and sharp witted FBI target. Sorkin's script is as entertaining as it is flawed in its ill-advised dependence on narration - even if the voiceover is generally well-written. "Game" is an entertaining and unlikely rise-and-fall tale of a charismatic and undeniably saavy protagonist.
"Molly's Game" screened during AFI FEST 2017 opens in theaters Dec. 25. This biographical drama is rated R for language, drug content and some violence and has a running time of 140 minutes.