Mostly for worse, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game, is pure unchecked Sorkin.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Just because one is a great writer, doesn’t mean that they can also be a great director. Sure, you may be able to spin quite the yarn, tales with twists that knock the audience for a loop, characters that are extraordinarily defined and likeable, dialogue that flows like poetry, and you may have seen your amazing scripts filmed by some of the greatest directors in filmmaking history, felt like you’ve picked up enough tricks by watching them work to do their job just as well, but none of that automatically means that you’ve got the skills to be a director. You may not know how to get your actors to make your dialogue pop, or how to make the sets look inhabited, or how to keep the pace up consistently, or many many more things. Not every writer who makes that jump can become a Charlie Kaufman or a Shane Black; most have to settle for being a William Monihan.
Given how often people trip over their own feet to praise his scripts for The Social Network, A Few Good Men, Steve Jobs, and of course his television work on Sports Night and The West Wing, one would assume that Aaron Sorkin would know how best to direct an Aaron Sorkin script. After all, when he is on, Sorkin is one of the best scriptwriters in the business, with dialogue that is electrifyingly good, especially when coming out of the mouths of fantastic actors, and a knack for controlling the pace and intensity of his narratives in such a way that you may not even notice it at first until your eyes are locked at the screen and will not move for anything – think back to how many individual episodes of The West Wing don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of the show yet are so enrapturing to watch that one either doesn’t realise or doesn’t care.
Of course, Sorkin can also be off, too. Extremely off, arguably just as much as he is on. When he is on, he is a joy to see in action, but when he is off, then the bugbears we can overlook when he is on – monologues that can be excessively flowery, smug self-righteousness on political issues and self-importance with regards to his characters’ attempts to change the world, often abysmally-written female characters, and an obsession with proper grammar and syntax that’s cute in small doses and insufferable when every last one of his leads all display the same trait – metastasize and drag the whole thing down with them. To that end, it’s important to note the people behind the camera when Sorkin is on: Thomas Schlamme, David Fincher, Danny Boyle, Bennett Miller, a pre-21st Century Rob Reiner. These are directors who knew how best to play Sorkin’s screenplays, how to translate them to screen with energy and pizzazz whilst largely being able to downplay those aforementioned bugbears either through inspired presentation, pure strength of filmmaking, or judicious editing.
For Molly’s Game, Sorkin has no middle-man to go through. This is his first-time behind the camera, directing a screenplay that effectively functions as a Greatest Hits compilation of his work so far this decade – the statistical analysis of Moneyball, the deposition framework and preoccupation with legacy of The Social Network, the asshole dads of Steve Jobs, the prideful morally-obsessed protagonists of The Newsroom. At almost no point does Molly’s Game come anywhere close to any one of those prior works, except maybe The Newsroom although Molly’s Game is just unengaging instead of a berserk, frequently-insensitive, madcap car-wreck like The Newsroom.
It might be tempting to place all of the blame on Sorkin’s debut turn behind the camera, and whilst that’s not an argument without merit, in truth, Molly’s Game is just not one of his finer scripts. For one thing, Sorkin has discovered Scorsese-style protagonist narration, and he is going to drive that device so deep into the ground that you will never want to hear Jessica Chastain say anything ever again. The best running narration gives you a constant insight into the protagonist’s state of mind, how they warp current events to fit their own narrative, and makes sure you’re constantly learning something new about the character. What Sorkin does for Molly’s Game is have Molly Bloom (Chastain) – a promising Olympic-level skier whose career is cut short due to a freak accident, subsequently deferring her law degree to move to LA, and eventually falling into the world of high-stakes underground poker with the goal of running her own game – narrate everything. Everything. Every last inconsequential thing.
Multiple times, Sorkin has her describing herself putting on makeup, or arranging chairs around her poker table, carrying cheese platters, counting money, filling an icebox; all actions that he’s already depicting on-screen as she is describing them, yet insists on having her narrate anyway. The effect is akin to having an especially overwritten book being spoken at you for two and a half hours, which may be the point – the narrative is structured around Molly being deposed by the United States government two years after she ran her last game due to tenuous Russian Mob connections, and her lawyer, Charlie (Idris Elba), is seen reading her autobiography throughout in order to get a better handle on her – but doesn’t change the fact that it makes for lousy and even annoying filmmaking. A pre-title sequence where Molly explains in great detail her Olympic Qualifier wipeout, every event leading up to it, exactly how such a freak accident could occur, and all because of her taking a personal offense to the answers the general public gave to the question “what’s the most heartbreaking thing that could happen to an athlete?” already tells us everything we need to know about Molly’s attention to detail, deep-seated Daddy Issues, and contempt for most other people. The ever-present narration adds nothing more.
On that note, Molly herself is The Sorkin Character. You know, The Sorkin Character? The one character that Sorkin has written for almost a decade now. She’s tough, competitive, feisty, absolutely no-nonsense, hates being used, desires power over powerful men brought upon by deep-seated Daddy Issues, is an asshole but a morally-upstanding one in her own warped way, and she is especially rankled by people who misuse pronouns. Only, unlike Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, she’s a woman, which, for those of you who are still unaware of that, is a fact that she repeats in dialogue roughly every 10 minutes. It’s tempting to give Molly a pass, given that she feels more written and better formed than a lot of female leads in American dramas, but not only is she just a gender-swap of prior Sorkin characters, there’s also not much to her when you try to start digging away at it. She feels better written and more defined, but in truth the character you meet at the start of Molly’s Game is largely the same character that comes out of the end. There are no twists, no unseen facets of her character, and the climax is largely given over to Charlie and Bad Dad Kevin Costner showing up to correctly psychoanalyse her with the most basic of Freudian excuses – the latter of which is also designed to absolve Bad Dad Kevin Costner of any wrongdoing in her upbringing because of course it is.
Therefore, and without any new wrinkles to this story that Sorkin has told better before, or any well-drawn and memorable side-characters to share focus with Molly, Molly’s Game drags. It’s 2 hours and 20 minutes, a runtime that I was truly feeling by the hour mark, and a length that Sorkin does not cope well with. His grasp of pacing is poor, and having nobody around to act as a higher-up or even just to say “no” means that there are whole scenes here that add nothing to the film. Banter-filled dialogue exchanges, stuffed with Sorkin trademarks like gratuitous literary references and characters purposefully talking around the subject of their conversation, that derail the flow of otherwise perfectly-fine scenes by going on and on for ages. It’s Sorkin at his most unfiltered, but this much concentrated undiluted Sorkin, particularly in his attempts to frame this morally-complex and upper-class story as emblematic of ordinary women battling against the patriarchy for success and respect, is too damn much and can lead one to wonder why they ever liked him in the first place.
His direction is not much better. At best, it is serviceable, being buoyed along by particularly sharp stretches of dialogue and certain well-constructed tangents. Otherwise, it’s a mess, an awkward mishmash of every film director Sorkin’s worked with where he tries to replicate their tricks and fails poorly. He tries for Fincher’s constant forward-momentum in a story seemingly without much of it, and misses due to the script, Daniel Pemberton’s relatively anonymous score, and an inability to craft a mood or let the different timelines sing in harmony with one another; the film stops dead whenever we cut back to Molly and Charlie in the deposition timeline. He attempts to imitate Boyle’s ability to intercut relatively simple extended dialogue exchanges with various stylised visual tangents, but ends up overindulging in excessive stock footage and flashy graphics that end up distractingly overtaking the scene whenever he tries them; like Adam McKay in The Big Short except without McKay’s tight control over his chaos. He largely settles for Reiner’s pointing-and-shooting, and can’t even pull that off because he somehow manages to make expensive glass offices located in huge skyscrapers look cheap and hokey.
Molly’s Game is not terrible. Every now and again, Sorkin manages to corral all of the things that otherwise work to slowly disassemble his movie into something genuinely entertaining and the results provide a reminder of how he got to where he is. The best of these shows how a running subplot involving Bad Brad (Brian d’Arcy James), a legendarily terrible player of poker, collides in spectacular fashion with another running subplot involving Harlan Eustace (Bill Camp), an otherwise excellent card player, even if it eventually just sort of peters out. The performances by Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are great, since both were born to sell quality Sorkin dialogue, although the supporting cast suffer from both a lack characters to play (Michael Cera does the best he can with an intentionally vague cypher of a big-shot Hollywood star) and spectacular miscasting (Chris O’Dowd who is also not helped by the screenplay insisting he be perpetually drunk). And, as with most subpar Sorkin works, if you can just lie back, let the dialogue wash over you, and not focus on anything else, you can fool yourself into thinking that you’re watching quality prestige filmmaking, even with ropier-than-usual construction.
My main takeaway from Molly’s Game, ultimately, is that Sorkin needs people to tell him “no” every once in a while. His debut directing gig is largely bad, although not unwatchably so, but the problems run deeper than just “first-time director gets in over his head.” By not having any reason to tighten up his flabby, insubstantial screenplay, Sorkin lets himself dive headfirst into self-indulgence. Not the perversely-entertaining self-indulgence of The Newsroom, where he proselytised the necessity of a left-wing Fox News staffed by psychics, but the kind where he overloads on Sorkin-isms and clichés for little more than show, draining the good stuff of any pleasure they once had and growing the issues one otherwise tolerates to an unavoidable size. It spends forever talking and talking around the central topic, digressing needlessly and attempting to artificially inflate that bog-standard reveal to a level of importance it doesn’t deserve. It tells you everything it has to say in the opening 5 minutes, but still soliloquies for an additional 135, seemingly just because it can, and the results are simply tiring.
Weird that, of the Chastain-starring Sorkinesque dramas to come out in the last twelve months, the Sorkin knock-off, Miss Sloane, would be vastly superior to the real thing.
Molly’s Game will be released in UK cinemas on January 1st, and select US cinemas from December 25th.
Callie Petch is fucked, and that fucks you too.