Saturday, January 20, 2018

Molly's Game

Alternate Title:  The Poker Room
One sentence synopsis:  A former competitive skier builds an empire of underground poker games before being caught up in a massive federal case against the Russian Mafia.

Things Havoc liked:  Some stories are just too good not to film, really. Molly Bloom, a downhill skier whose career was derailed by injury, moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and was hired to staff a Poker game out of a backroom club called the Viper Room, catering to Hollywood celebrities. The game expanded, and Molly first took it over, then took it big, throwing lavish events and attracting moguls from industry, finance, entertainment, and every other corner of the high-roller world. By 2009, she had moved her operation to New York, running one of the most sought-after games in the country, before a 2013 raid and indictment caused her to lose everything in a massive RICO sting aimed at the many members of the Russian mob who were participants in her game. Along the way she dealt with addicts, egomaniacs, mobsters, drunks, Hollywood big shots, princes of various European and Middle Eastern royal families, and plenty of people who fit into more than one of the above categories. Her career came to an abrupt end in 2013 when she was caught up in a money laundering and racketeering sting by the FBI and Justice Departments, as part of their attempts to crush the Russian Mafia, most of whose most prominent members were players in her game. In the intervening years, she wrote a tell-all book (notable primarily for not even remotely telling all), and there were a number of attempts to turn her story into a movie, and after several abortive attempts, who has decided to take this on, but Television's master of self-important dialogue, Aaron Sorkin.

Molly's Game stars Jessica Chastain, an actress I have famously had little use for over the years (see my reviews for Zero Dark Thirty and Interstellar for more on that), as Molly Bloom, but for all my objections to Chastain's typical style of acting, if there's one thing 2016's The Huntsman: Winter's War taught me, it's that I had Chastain pegged incorrectly. The problem isn't that she can't act, the problem is that she can't act seriously. Her attempts to emote sincerity and seriousness have always fallen flat to me, making her sound alternately like a marionette struggling to understand these "hu-man" emotions, or like a petulant seven-year-old who has been denied a cookie. But give her a film or a situation in which she's supposed to be campy, or ridiculous, or over-the-top, and she suddenly becomes a completely different actor. And while Molly's Game is certainly intended to be a realistic portrayal of a young woman who simply got caught up in strange events, it's also written by Aaron Sorkin, of The Social Network and The West Wing (and several other things we will get to), who has one of the strongest and most distinctive authorial voices of any screenwriter in Hollywood (yes, moreso even than Joss Whedon). Sorkin's dialogue, no matter the setting or medium, has always felt like written dialogue, like something prepared in advance by a speechwriter, rather than something people might conceivably come up with and say in a real setting, and while that's not always a strength, it allows Chastain to do what she's good at, giving her the sort of snappy, witty, erudite one-liners that nobody would come up with in the spur of the moment. The long and the short of all this is that Chastain is excellent in this film, playing a driven young woman from a hyper-demanding background who is subjected to the sorts of raving, savagely egomaniacal, borderline sociopathic douchebags and pressures that are instantaneously believable as coming from the ranks of Hollywood or high finance.

And of course, Chastain is not alone. Idris Elba, my man-crush and yours, plays Bloom's lawyer, Charlie Jaffey, in the typical style of an Aaron Sorkin lawyer, meaning with wit, erudition, and snappy comebacks to every situation. As I know several people (Hi, Colleen!) who fantasize about Idris Elba yelling at them, this movie should provide plenty of fodder, and Elba is, as he always is, wonderful in the role, though his American accent this time is about as authentic as my British one. Kevin Costner, of all people, plays Molly's father, a professor of psychology and a helicopter parent, whose tough-love-style of borderline-verbally-abusive behavior is intentionally played in contrast with Costner's native salt-of-the-Earth persona. I've admitted before that for all the garbage that Costner has made over the years (and still continues to make, lest anyone forget Criminal), I've always liked him, at least in the rare occasions when the director and scriptwriters manage to get him something to say or do that is within his range. Sorkin does, and Costner, surprisingly, proves an excellent fit for Sorkin's stilted style, particularly in a late sequence where he sits down with his daughter and speaks what, to him at least, is brutal honesty. And then there's the various shitheads that Bloom encounters throughout her career, foremost among which is Michael Cera, of all people, as "Player X", a composite of various A-list Hollywood celebrities who frequented Molly's games, but apparently primarily based on Toby Maguire, or so the rumors have it. If those rumors are true, Maguire should take real care given the tenor of Hollywood today, as Cera plays this character as an actual raving sociopath, one who admits that despite all the poker he plays, he actually doesn't much like the game itself. What he likes, in his own words, is "ruining people's lives", something he does with Iago-like gusto to everyone he meets. My old pals Chris O'Dowd (of The Sapphires), and Jeremy Strong (of a whole bunch of crap), take smaller roles as, respectively, a drunken Irish associate of the Russian Mafia with a heart of gold, and a Hollywood wannabe/failed Los Angeles real estate agent with seemingly no heart whatsoever. This is the sort of thing one runs into when one turns in these circles, it seems. Both are superb, customarily so in O'Dowd's case, the opposite in Strong's, with O'Dowd managing to inject some real emotion into one of the oldest cinema character cliches in existence (the drunken Irishman), and Strong evidencing some of the douchiest behavior known to man outside of the White House.

Things Havoc disliked:You may have noticed by this point that I seem to be talking an awful lot about Aaron Sorkin, and that's kind of unavoidable, and not just because he both wrote, produced, and directed this film, his directorial debut, in fact. Honestly the direction is fine, Sorkin has a lengthy and well-established background in Television after all and has been working in film for over thirty years. But when it comes to the writing, we start to have an issue. You see, I mentioned before that Sorkin's authorial voice is one of the strongest in Hollywood, up there with the likes of David Mamet or Joss Whedon. This is not necessarily a good thing. You see for all of the success that Sorkin has had, with The West Wing, with Social Network, with Moneyball or Charlie Wilson's War, when Sorkin has nobody to restrain him the way David Fincher did, he generally produces works of such staggering, monumental authorial arrogance as to inspire mocking fake-twitter feeds that long-outlast the work in question. It was thus for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a failed behind-the-scenes-at-Saturday-Night-Live show that was so painfully preachy and unfunny as to make paint drying look like a Megadeth concert, and wherein Sorkin famously responded to the criticisms he was subjected to by calling all his critics basement-dwelling virginial bloggers with no taste. It was also thus for The Newsroom, one of the preachiest and most hamfisted television shows ever invented, wherein Sorkin re-wrote every story of the day as he would have reported on it with perfect hindsight, and then spent the rest of the runtime making his characters recite endless denunciations of strawman after strawman, particularly when it came to "the youths" and their "blogosphere". Now, let me be clear, Molly's Game doesn't have anything like those shows' levels of unfettered arrogance. What it does have, however, is the tendency for every character to sound the same.

You see, with a voice this strong, this recognizable, it's clear enough to me at this point that Sorkin doesn't know how to write anyone who isn't just like himself, an overeducated political and cultural snob (I say this with some endearment, as I am also an overeducated political and cultural snob). In shows like The West Wing, which was about a group of exceptionally intelligent and driven people at the heart of the political system, this mattered less, as Sorkin wrote his characters the way we'd like all of our elected officials to act and speak. With The Social Network, he was again dealing with masters of the universe, students at Harvard University with spectacular pedigrees and impeccable contempt for all the lesser creatures of the world. But in Molly's Game, despite all the high-rollers on offer, the movie is ultimately a character study of Molly, and to a lesser extent her lawyer, none of whom should sound the same as one another, and all of whom do, speaking in this inflappable, ultra-witty style of hyper-stylized dialogue that just does not exist when we are supposedly dealing with the real world. Everyone's speach consists of the same one-liners, peppered with references to high culture and in-jokes that it makes no sense for their characters to be making. And while I do like movies about smart people speaking in a smart fashion, Sorkin's voice is so overpowering that he risks losing the humanity of what's happening. It's hard for us as an audience to feel sorry or frightened alongside the main character when the film has spent the entire run-time establishing them as being beyond such mortal concerns as fright or sorrow. And none of this is helped by Sorkin, in the last third of the film, giving into his worst habits and spending a good portion of the movie waxing eloquently about the injustice of the FBI seizing Molly's assets and fining her hundreds of thousands of dollars, when in reality (as it turns out) neither actually occurred. I don't demand all biopics stick scrupulously to the truth of the matter, of course, but it's a bit rich to turn your film into an excoriation of the Federal Government for having done terrible things to poor Molly, when it did not actually do those things.

Final thoughts:  All that being said though, Molly's Game is certainly an enjoyable film, with a compelling story full of sleaze and greed and power games and, it must be admitted, luxuriously fun dialogue at times. Even if Sorkin makes everyone sound like himself, the fact is that his style of witty repartee is a lot of fun to listen to, especially when good (citation needed) actors are the ones reciting it. I don't know if it's worthy of the Oscars that it clearly is looking for, but as a film about the seedier side of high society and organized crime, I have seen far worse examples, and would recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone who likes the idea of the film, or just wants to watch Idris Elba yell for a while. And really, who doesn't?

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Speaking of movies about women who formerly competed in Winter Olympic events...

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