By Noah Gittell
“Molly’s Game” is a slick and fascinating film that reveals both the possibilities and limits of female redemption in a man’s world. For his directorial debut, uber-writer Aaron Sorkin (“A Few Good Men,” “The Social Network”) has optioned the true story of Molly Bloom, who ran a high-stakes poker game for ten years before being indicted by the FBI for dubious connections with the Russian mob. The tabloids dubbed her the “Poker Princess,” and she was caricatured and convicted in the public eye long before her case even got to court. Sorkin seeks to redeem her from that fate, and for most of the film, “Molly’s Game” succeeds as a heroic portrait of its subject. But in key moments, Sorkin’s male gaze fails him, and the limits of his approach become painfully clear.
We first meet Molly (Jessica Chastain) as a hyper-driven teenager, a competitive skier compelled to excellence by her overbearing father (Kevin Costner). After injuring herself in the Olympics, she moves to Los Angeles and ends up hosting a high-stakes poker game. She knows how to succeed in a world of men. She gets the job by flirting skillfully at her cocktail waitress job with Dean, who runs the game; succeeds at the job by earning the respect and admiration of the all-male players, including movie stars and titans of business; and she breaks out on her own, after her skeevy male boss tries to coerce her into taking a pay cut. She brings the players with her, including big fish Player X (Michael Cera), a mega-star whose fame draws others into the game, and pretty soon, she is exchanging millions on a nightly basis.
Sorkin, an award-winning screenwriter, has been around Hollywood for decades, and in his directorial debut, he successfully passes himself off as a veteran. The surfaces are slick; he leans on Scorsese’s style of caffeinated editing and use of pop music to immerse us in the thrills of high-stakes poker, and the first half of “Molly’s Game” goes down so smooth you might catch a buzz against your will.
Chastain gives a typically understated performance: Molly is so controlled, using her calm and charisma to project stability, that it’s easy to underestimate the skill involved in her performance. Watching her push around the pathetic gamblers who pass as her friends – Chris O’Dowd is aces in comic relief as a harmless drunk – is a giddy delight, but when her humanity reveals itself in an errant tear or quaking voice, it is equally thrilling.
These sequences are all told in flashback, but the film fumbles a bit in present-day narrative that finds Molly in dialogue with her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who takes the case after being impressed with Molly’s character. She won’t turn over the hard drives containing information about her clients to the FBI, and Jaffey, the only high-priced Manhattan lawyer who doubles as a good Samaritan, takes her case. Jaffey is just one of several men on which Molly depends, undercutting Sorkin’s feminist intent. He gets a big speech towards the end in which he passionately defends Molly’s virtues to the FBI, and the way she looks up at him in admiration indicates she has just been waiting for a handsome man like Elba to save her. She is a princess after all.
Even worse is the emotional climax of the film, in which her father reappears on the eve of her court date. Spotting her in Central Park, he proceeds to sit her down and <mansplain> her deep-rooted psychological motivations. Spoiler alert: he says that everything Molly did – leaving skiing, starting the poker game, refusing to back down from the FBI – is to get back at him for a childhood transgression whose reveal comes out of nowhere. It’s an unconscionably terrible scene that wraps her complications up in too tidy a bow, reducing her from an independently strong woman to a little girl with lingering daddy-daughter issues.
It’s hard to imagine a female filmmaker making such a crucial error. In trying to make her more interesting than the cartoonish “Poker Princess” the tabloid sold her as, Sorkin just puts her in a different box, still defining her within the rules of his man’s world. A female filmmaker might have been able to tell Molly’s story as her own. Instead, “Molly’s Game” feels more like one man rescuing her from another. It’s a very satisfying story, even if it’s not the one she would have told about herself.
My Rating: See it in the Theater