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Movie Review: 'Molly's Game'

How One Scene Defines Why the Film Comes Up Short

By Sean PatrickPublished 6 years ago 5 min read
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Can one scene demonstrate why Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game starring Jessica Chastain falls flat? Probably not, but in this article I am going to demonstrate how one scene can shed light on the Aaron Sorkin style, why Idris Elba is not really an Aaron Sorkin kind of actor and just who is the Aaron Sorkin style of actor; here’s a hint, they were on The West Wing.

Molly’s Game stars Jessica Chastain in the somewhat true to life role of Molly Bloom, a woman the tabloids came to call ‘The Poker Princess.’ Molly was on her way to the Salt Lake City Olympics as a skier when she suffered a devastating crash injury and was sent into retirement. Instead of going to law school and starting her life, Molly decided to move to Los Angeles, where she goes to work for a high roller who runs a high stakes poker game.

Eventually, Molly takes over the game and begins a multi-million dollar run that came to an abrupt end when the Russian mob began invading her game and leading to the FBI raiding the game and arresting Molly. After Molly wrote a book about her time running high stakes poker games for celebrities, politicians, and tycoons, the FBI raided her again and arrested her.

All of this leads up to the scene we are going to discuss in this article. Molly needs a lawyer and her fifth choice is Charley Jaffy, played by Idris Elba. Charlie doesn’t want to be Molly’s lawyer, but after a tense interview he can’t help but be intrigued enough to, at least, accompany her to her first hearing. Being that the Russian mob is involved, Charley brings along security and sits one of the beefy guards between himself and Molly.

This is the set up for our scene. As we wait for the judge to call Molly’s case so that she may plead, Charley’s curiosity starts getting the best of him. He asks for the security guard to switch seats so that he can talk to Molly, he asks a question, she huffs an answer, and Charley switches seats again. Another moment passes; Charley has another question and switches seats again. Molly gives another irritated answer and Charley goes back to his seat. Finally, just as they stand for the judge, Charley switches to stand next to Molly and asks her one more question.

This is obviously not part of the historic record of what happened when Molly Bloom went to court for the first time. This scene is classically Aaron Sorkin. Fans of Sorkin’s hit political series The West Wing remember scenes like this all over that series. Characters would lightheartedly engage in bits of physical business in order for scenes, usually those dealing in plot heavy dialogue, to have some kind of visual element to break the monotony.

The difference here, however, in Molly’s Game, is that the scene isn’t set properly for this bit of business. Where The West Wing spent ample time setting both a lighthearted and dramatic tone with characters who could slip easily from seriousness to comedy, Molly’s Game never lets up on the heavy drama. Jessica Chastain establishes a harsh and bitter tone in her narration, which fits with the Molly Bloom we meet at the start of the film, as she details her physical setbacks and the toughness and stubbornness that brought her back.

For his part, Elba is just as serious as Chastain, with no hint of sly charm, but rather a dignified air of seriousness. Thus, when Charley begins his bit of business switching seats, battling his curiosity over his new client versus his desire to have a client he doesn’t think is a criminal, the bit of business feels forced and out of place. There is nothing cute in this scene, it’s not meant to be cute and yet this very same scene on The West Wing would be played for charm.

Were this Rob Lowe or Bradley Whitford, the scene would have set up with them trying to hit on a woman during an important legislative event. They would establish why Lowe or Whitford wanted to chat with this person, again likely an attractive female, and they would use their eyes and body language to comically signal that despite how strange and inappropriate this may be, they just can’t help themselves.

If I were to pull up an episode of The West Wing as I am writing this, I am quite sure any episode would contain a scene just like the one I have described. It’s a Sorkin signature, because he relies heavily on banter in his scripts and since this is a visual medium, there must be a visual to carry the scene along with the dialogue or the scene doesn’t feel as dynamic as Sorkin’s words.

Why doesn’t it work then in Molly’s Game as it worked so well on The West Wing? Because in Molly’s Game it arrives as a Sorkin cliché, a typical attribute of Sorkin storytelling right down to the use of the comedy rule of 3. The rule of three dates back to centuries of writing and states the theory that if you do something three times, the audience is more likely to remember it. Sorkin’s use of The Rule of 3 is specific to his style of comedy, which draws upon the awkward or humorous way in which characters interact and perplex each other in comic fashion, usually by upsetting the order of a scene in the characters own self-interest.

The behavior of the interrupting character, the one who can’t resist their impulses, is where Sorkin mines his comedy. On The West Wing, it was charming when Lowe’s Sam Seaborne would get something in his head and go out of his way to interrupt order until he got some sort of answer or response either in his favor or not. Idris Elba is not Rob Lowe, unfortunately.

This is not to say that this scene falls flat because of Elba. Elba establishes his character as far too serious for such nonsense. He’s a straight ahead kind of guy who wouldn’t repeatedly disrupt order to get answers. He is played as the kind of guy who doesn’t do impish curiosity, unlike The West Wing stars who lived for impishness. Why would Charley play around switching seats, he’d just sit down and ask his questions directly as he was direct with Molly in his first scene with her.

The problem here is Aaron Sorkin’s direction of Molly’s Game. Sorkin is coasting on his writing and failing to remember that we are just getting to know these characters, they aren’t his babies the way The West Wing characters were. These aren’t people we know what to expect from and thus when he establishes Charley’s no-nonsense persona in one scene and then tries to twist it for light comedy in the next scene, the jarring tone ruins the scene and undermines his actor.

The scene is classically Sorkin as writer-father of The West Wing, but it has no home in the far more serious minded Molly’s Game. Other scenes in the film have a similar off-kilter quality. The drama of the film is heavy, Chastain, much like Elba, isn’t playing for charm; she’s playing a tough character with a defensive veneer of steeliness. It’s a good performance, but it is not necessarily fitting with the style of Aaron Sorkin. Thus why the court scene in Molly’s Game is emblematic of what fails about Molly’s Game.

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About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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