Playing the hand we’re dealt in Molly’s Game

Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game (Michael Gibson | STXfilms)

This is supposed to be the big year of women deciding not to take any more crap from men, right? In Hollywood especially, right? At the Golden Globes last weekend, “Time’s Up” was the watchword. Everybody turned out in black, symbolizing solidarity with the victims of predators like Harvey Weinstein. Oprah Winfrey gave an inspirational speech that had many listeners fantasizing about the next celebrity president being female. But when it came time to hand out the Best Director Award, presenter Natalie Portman had the most truthful mic-drop of the evening: “And here are the all-male nominees…”

Onscreen, things haven’t changed much as yet. The film industry, even when it’s telling women’s stories, still mainly delivers them “as told by men.” Case in point this week: Molly’s Game, which is the sort of movie that will be glowingly cited as having a “strong female protagonist,” ably performed by the great Jessica Chastain. It’s based on a memoir written by a real woman, Molly Bloom: an Olympic-caliber skier sidelined by a serious injury who makes a shady new career running high-stakes poker games, then refuses to name names once her operation is busted by the FBI. But here’s the thing: From beginning to end, Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s movie.

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For many viewers, the fact that this product is the hotshot screenwriter’s directorial debut will be a big draw. Probably best-known as the creative mind behind the long-running TV series The West Wing, Sorkin rose to fame as a playwright (A Few Good Men) and garnered a slew of awards including the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Social Network (2010). His trademark style of nonstop dialogue – cerebral, snappy, information-dense – has been much admired and imitated. There’s no denying that Sorkin comes up with stories that are refreshingly engaging, at least on an intellectual level, and often morally nuanced. But he rarely aims for the heart, and when he does, he has been known to miss.

That’s what happens in Molly’s Game. Molly Bloom is a juicy character, personifying the classic concept of honor among thieves. But her backstory falters, despite a game effort by Kevin Costner in the role of the demanding father whom the young aspiring ski champion could never please. Much lip service is given to Molly’s determination to win in a man’s world, to transcend the humiliations visited on her by the guys who make the rules. But the character never manages to grok that her problem is largely one of being excessively male-identified, and it seems to be an authorial/directorial blind spot as well.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the roller-coaster ride through Molly’s rags-to-riches second career. Fans of Sorkin’s previous work will doubtless find the breathless visual pace (he keeps his editors very busy) and the twisty chatter most entertaining. There’s a compelling roster of supporting characters whose gambling addiction fuels Molly’s rise to tabloid infamy, drawing the viewer into the psychologies of men who are losers even when they are winners: Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Brian d’Arcy James, Chris O’Dowd and Bill Camp all hit the right notes and help us admire the emotional boundaries that Molly sets. Graham Greene gets a nice little turn near the end as a humane and sensible judge. And Idris Elba is reliably wonderful as Charlie, the unaffordable attorney who perceives the tough, principled woman beneath the glitzy reputation of the “Poker Princess.”

But see…they’re all men. The only other actress mentioned anywhere near the top of the cast list is Claire Rankin as Molly’s mom. Despite the fact that much of the protagonist’s well-contained fury against men is inspired by resentment of her father’s infidelities, the character is a cipher, identified only as “Mother.” When she’s ready to set up her own game, Molly enlists the help of some Playboy bunnies for their connections in the world of high-rollers, but none sticks around long enough to establish a personality. It’s tough to avoid drawing the conclusion that if you put a male screenwriter/director in charge of a film about a “strong woman,” chances are very good that he’ll set her in a vacuum, with no female role models or friends. For the average female viewer, I suspect, this isn’t going to ring true-to-life.

All this being said, you’ll probably have a good time watching Molly’s Game (it will help if you have at least a fleeting familiarity with poker terminology). Just don’t expect anything inspired or inspirational. The verbal onslaught won’t give you much time to contemplate how this movie might have been different in the hands of a female director. But you might find yourself thinking about that question afterwards.

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