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Aaron Sorkin would like you to know that it’s a bitch to kick a habit. The Oscar-winning screenwriter and creator of The West Wing is back with a new film, Molly’s Game, about an intoxicant that seduces the rich and powerful and fucks up their lives but can’t be snorted/shot-up/drank: High-stakes poker. If you’re a fan of his work, you know what you’re getting into here — witty dialogue drunk on its own verbosity, pop culture references done in an “old-man-yells-at-cloud” fashion, and some mediocre attempts at correcting the gender politics which he always claims he’ll do in his next work. It’s fine, I guess, but it could have used a steadier hand behind the camera, given that it’s Sorkin’s directorial debut, and perhaps some judicious trimming of the fat.

Molly’s Game tells the story of “poker princess” Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic-level skier who, after a debilitating back injury on a chance fall down the slopes, retires from her sport and decides to take a gap year between the end of her career and the start of law school. She moonlights as a cocktail waitress until she’s able to get a real job, working for a miserable asshole who freaks out when she gets him the wrong bagels on her way to work, but he gives her an opportunity that’ll change her life. He tells her to manage his weekly poker game, where the Los Angeles high-and-mighty meet up to lose money and trade secrets, and eventually she branches out and starts her own game. From there, she’ll be roped into some pretty bad shit — drug addition, mafia connects, and the violence that comes with the two — until she’s busted by the FBI, and has to turn to a charismatic LA lawyer (Idris Elba) for help staying out of prison for the rest of her life. There’s certainly enough there for a compelling feature, and Sorkin does his best to make it a fun ride, but his structure (of constant flashback and flashforward) doesn’t totally work here, and at its worst, it keeps us distinctly at arm’s length from Chastain, who should be the central focus here.

Chastain is fine, but she’s all grimaces and sarcastic barbs, and there’s a palpable distance between her and other comparable Sorkin protagonists; think Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs, each of whom was given the space in the script to have a thousand different emotions at any given time. There’s never that kind of pause or reflection given to Bloom here, until Sorkin decides that she needs an impromptu therapy session with Dad at the end of the film in order to neatly resolve those plotlines and character arcs, whose loveless absence is essentially the root of all of her problems (you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me). And part of that may be that Molly has enough self-awareness to feel guilty for what she’s done over the course of her adult life, perhaps in a way that Jobs or Zuck never had to confront, given that it all winds up amounting less than a hill of beans for her, but it feels much like the same sort of double-standard that defines so many portrayals of the “strong female protagonist.” It’s an admirable overcorrection, given Sorkin’s notable issues with the representation of women on screen, but it’s one that doesn’t offer much substance or authenticity and also still fails in a key number of ways — she’s still defined exclusively by the men in her life, even though she’s basically presented here as an asexual being even when she’s, as Elba says, “looking like the Cinemax version of herself.”

Those men take a number of different forms, and you probably could put them out on a D&D alignment chart well enough. Lawful Good would obviously be Elba, whose single-dad lawyer character is raising daughter on his own while taking on a number of high-profile cases, including Bloom’s, and he slowly comes to her side over the course of the film, culminating in his delivery of an impassioned speech about her to the US attorney prosecuting her case. It’s a standard arc for a character like his, free of the most part from complication, and Elba elevates it so you don’t really get how boring his character really is.

Chaotic Neutral would most likely go to Molly’s father, played by Kevin Costner, who acts terribly to her for most of the film (scolding her at the dinner table about Freud and then fucking around on her mother in the background for the runtime) but redeems himself somewhat in the final moments to make sure that we realize that Molly’s desire to dominate powerful men just like her dad is the reason why she needed to run a poker game. He is sarcastic and wonderfully bitchy, and it’s the most awake I’ve seen Costner on screen in the last twenty years, so that’s worth something. On the True Evil side of things, we have Mister X, a celebrity playboy who’s played by, in a fabulous bit of stunt casting, Michael Cera. He’s a slimy little douchebag who slides in and ruins people’s lives and slides out of the film before life can cash his chips in for him. Cera’s hilarious, and is among the only people in the movie to know what the hell he’s doing here.

Sorkin’s direction is solid, for the most part, especially during any given scene actually at the poker table. He’s able to deftly manage the personalities at all of the games, and it helps his thesis, that poker is a game of personality and influence as much as any other, and he has a particular talent for explaining the depths of the game to audience members who don’t know anything about poker itself. One lengthy sequence involving the metaphorical self-immolation of a player at one of Molly’s games is told deftly and fascinatingly; you can feel the pain of this guy’s collapse even as you’re having a shitload of fun watching it happen. When it comes to, say, depicting Bloom’s assault at the hands of the Italian Mafia late in the film, it looks like amateur hour in the worst of ways, all in-the-moment nonsense that shows that Sorkin, for all his talents on the page, still hasn’t figured out how to make that kind of action compelling. Verbal assaults are his bag, not-so-much the shaky-cam and editing flourishes that are on display here. Still, you’ve got to wonder what David Fincher or even Danny Boyle would have done with a script like this, or what their editing and framing of his script would have looked like.

Molly’s Game is assured enough to suggest that Sorkin might be able to direct more of his own work down the line, and resists the temptation for much of its runtime to give into the worst instincts of its writer (bloat and overt verbosity) that it’s accessible to audiences that might normally hate his work. Its cast is strong, and aside from the length and the occasional flub, it’s a worthwhile watch. But if you’re looking for one central sports movie to watch coming out of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, you’d be better off seeing I, Tonya or sitting through the boring parts of Borg/McEnroe to get at that sweet, sweet LaBeouf.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus, and recap all our TIFF 2017 coverage here.

 

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