Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Poker Face: Molly's Game

Jessica Chastain (left) in Molly's Game. (Photo: Michael Gibson)

As Molly Bloom in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's directing debut, Molly's Game, Jessica Chastain is something of an enigma. Playing a real-life high-stakes entrepreneur who ran exclusive poker games in New York and Los Angeles for over a decade until she was arrested by the FBI, Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Violent Year) turns opaqueness into an acting style. Her glamourous deadpan tells us little about the restless hunger that propelled Bloom into hosting a motley collection of players – including Hollywood celebrities (like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire), business tycoons, gambling addicts and Russian mobsters (which would lead to federal charges against her). Chastain dons a poker face like her clients, but it reveals even less about what's going on with her than the faces of the card sharps at her table bluffing their way to a kill. In Molly's Game, the motivating force – what is hidden behind all her risky moves – is missing in the performance. It's missing in the movie, too, because Sorkin can't identify with the low cunning it takes to pull off what Bloom accomplished. He has higher ideals in his head and they've clouded his thinking.

Sorkin begins the film, which is based on Bloom's book Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker, in Colorado with Bloom as an adolescent hopeful in Olympic downhill skiing, where she is driven to succeed by her demanding psychoanalyst father (Kevin Costner) but abandons the sport after suffering a severe back injury in a fall. According to her memoir, Bloom did have back surgery at the age of 12, but she continued in the sport, even winning a bronze medal with the U.S. ski team when she finished third. She only left professional skiing to pursue other ventures that could lead to more enduring success. But Sorkin fictionalizes this part of Bloom's life because he needs his hero to be an idealist underdog who rises above adversity. Once Molly relocates to Los Angeles, she encounters a sleazy Hollywood real estate agent, Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), who runs underground poker games on the side. After learning the ropes, she moves to New York to run her own poker tables until she is arrested two years later. Facing prison, Molly seeks out a high-priced lawyer, Charlie Jaffery (Idris Elba), to represent her, and he advises her to sell out her clients in order to cut a deal with the prosecution. From there, Molly's Game bounces back and forth in time through flashbacks to show us how she triumphs to become her own woman.

Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain.

Sorkin wants us to see Molly as a master facilitator of underground poker games who is, however, above the obsessive world of gambling – and this idea guts her as a character. So he overdoses on voice-over narration to compensate for the blank spot at the center of the film. Sorkin overloads the picture with so much exposition that all we get is her story without the benefit of seeing it fleshed out dramatically. It distances us from the protagonist and we don't encounter Bloom's inner demons. When she starts using drugs to cope with the mounting pressures of running games all week, Sorkin depicts it no differently than if she were picking up the laundry. She works the tables with a vast collection of men with damaged egos and turbulent lives, but we don't feel her attachment to this world and what she gets out of it. She doesn't even have a sex life, or any desire for one. You begin to think that Sorkin feels eroticism would darken the pure spirit of his poker princess. Chastain's performance is so chaste that she is beyond malice. Not only does she not want anyone to get hurt (so most of her earned money remains uncollected by hired muscle), but she doesn't even want to incriminate others, though she possesses a collection of revealing e-mails that would free her from the feds. Molly's Game should be about how a woman kept her head above water in a world where the thrill often comes from the ability to exploit someone else's weakness. But Molly transcends all that. She may dress sexy, but she's as pure as the Flying Nun. When we watch Jeanne Moreau in Bay of Angels (1963), or George Segal and Elliott Gould in California Split (1974), or more recently, Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn in Mississippi Grind (2015), we experience the delirious buzz of a gambler's highs and lows. Molly's Game keeps the temperature cool and detached. Only Bill Camp, as a card sharp whose perfect world comes tumbling down, gives us a taste of the frightening dynamics among players when the high stakes are more than just the money on the table. On the other hand, Michael Cera (playing a character loosely based on Tobey Maguire), is horribly miscast as a tough cookie who tries to hustle Bloom. When he tells her, “I don’t like playing poker. I like destroying lives,” he's about as convincing as Fredo running the Corleone family.

While Sorkin has always been something of an idealist with a touch of the proselytizer lurking within, his gift for screwball dialogue has often kept it in check. On The West Wing, his dream White House featured a dazzling collection of comic characters crisscrossing each other in constant motion as if they were trying to keep up with the thoughts teeming and streaming through their brains. His script for David Fincher's The Social Network, which was the story of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) the billionaire founder of Facebook, was a sublime comedy of malice about mercenary genius nerds. While the movie didn’t celebrate Zuckerberg's unethical guile, it took us right into the scheming brain of a social outsider who found devious ways to get on the inside. It was like Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) for the computer age. But by the time, Sorkin made The Newsroom for HBO it was as if he had suddenly lost faith in the audience he'd won in The West Wing. Instead of creating the crackling vibe of a television news centre, Sorkin built pulpits from which his characters could preach. His dialogue had lost none of its speed, but its screwball dance turned straight and narrow and quickly wore you down. By the time he wrote Steve Jobs for director Danny Boyle, his machine-gun style had become so redundant that you couldn't connect the words to the characters speaking them. The dialogue began to blur because it seemed to be there for its own sake. Molly's Game contains enough verbiage for three movies, but all it does is pull you away from the drama and the characters.

Jeremy Strong manages to make the most of his vibrant pungency as Molly's disreputable mentor, but Idris Elba is not so lucky. He's no more than a plaster saint as her lawyer. He was sleek and riveting as a drug lord in The Wire, but he's more blandly noble here than he was as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013). Since we're given to believe that Molly's drives are tied to her father issues, Sorkin sets up Elba's Charlie as the good and decent father (unlike her own) with a daughter he's also trying to mentor properly and has furnished with a reading list. She is currently studying Arthur Miller's The Crucible; the metaphor is a lead balloon since it's painfully obvious that Sorkin sees Bloom – like John Proctor – as having given her soul but in the end all she wants is her name. Molly Bloom may have a name in Molly's Game, but the picture does little to give her a soul. Sorkin backs away from the enticingly sordid world the story presents because he wants to hold her up as a hero who never got her hands dirty. In poker, you wouldn't even try to bluff an amateur with a hand like that.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger.

No comments:

Post a Comment