by REGGIE WOLTZ
Aaron Sorkin Goes All-In
Aaron Sorkin is a master of screenwriting. Even if you don’t know his name, you probably know his work. The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs (the Michael Fassbender one) are just his last three films – the first two of which were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Ever since his work on A Few Good Men and West Wing, Sorkin’s name has been synonymous with on-page prestige. As a result, it’s only natural that a movie with his name attached would be worth keeping an eye on.
In Molly’s Game, however, it’s not your eyes that matter. Sure, there are important visuals. From the opening moments, overlaid diagrams are used to aid the viewer’s comprehension. In the movie’s poker scenes, these diagrams are especially important to helping the viewer to understand the dramatic tension without having to know the game itself.
Jessica Chastain, as the titular character, characterizes Molly between two timelines that show her progression through an eventful career as a host of high roller poker games. The most striking difference between these two Mollies is how they are represented through outfits and make-up. Chastain’s performance itself is also very eye-catching, using facial micro-expressions and powerful body language to convey meaning in every scene.
For all that the editing and acting give you to look at, Molly’s Game is much more interested in making you listen. This is what Sorkin is good at. The cerebral and quickly paced dialogue is laid on impressively, particularly in the Word Olympics scenes that Chastain and Idris Elba share. The supporting actors and actresses in the movie are also at their best. Michael Cera’s Player X, Bill Camp’s Harlan, and Chris O’Dowd’s Douglas do well to help the movie along for the final half of the movie. From a dialogue and character performance perspective, this movie really showcases Sorkin’s skills.
Narration is present throughout the movie. The surprisingly consistent use of Molly’s internal voice felt like a guided tour through the halls of her memories. Chastain gave life to the movie from scene one, and along the way her narration tied together three timelines to tell us Molly’s story. That’s no minor feat, considering that narration in movies is usually a five minute introduction and rarely heard from again.
The style of the dialogue and the use of narration are major positives in their own right, but together they destroy the balance between sound and silence. It’s not like in another movie where rampant dialogue would be washed out by a musical transition or a change of pace. This counterpoint, instead, was narration. And all of that exposition causes a fair amount of mental fatigue by the end of the 140 minute runtime.
The cause of this seems obvious. Sorkin isn’t just writing this time, he’s directing. And whatever hold on Sorkin’s dialogue that a David Fincher, Bennett Miller, or Ridley Scott utilized to achieve a proper balance is gone. Leaving the preponderance of dialogue in a film up to Aaron Sorkin is like giving the green light to a kid in a candy store. You think that kid is going to take his time, carefully meditating on the most elegant sugar pairings before making an enlightened and refined selection? Nah, that kid’s gonna go straight for what he knows he wants and get as much of it as he can.
But there’s more. The gummi bear that broke the camel’s back comes at the end. Kevin Costner, Molly’s father whom we know by now is a psychologist with a background in Sigmund Freud’s theories, gives us “Three years of therapy in three minutes.” Not only is Sorkin interested in telling us the entire movie, he wants to go one step farther. We get the story of a vital experience from her early childhood (that manifested subconsciously because Freud) and a call back to her worst memory. As such, Aaron Sorkin has explained the movie as the ending to that movie. Aaron Sorkin just won a Triple Crown in exposition that I didn’t even know existed.
In a vacuum, the idea of a explaining everything, making literal the themes and plot of the movie, is a cool concept. It isn’t attempted very often and it definitely isn’t done well, hardly ever. But that’s because it’s a stretch, even in a movie that doesn’t use exposition as much as Molly’s Game does. Here, it feels contrived and slightly condescending. Sorkin doesn’t let the viewers figure anything out, which feels like an infringement on our rights.
All in all, Molly’s Game is still an impressive debut. Sorkin knew what he wanted to do and then executed, also getting great performances from his actors. The fault of the film is that what he wants to do is to test your hearing and attention span. This doesn’t necessarily come through upon first viewing – the material and style are great while everything is new. But on the second time around, the magic trick is over and the sleight of hand feels more like sleight of sledgehammer.
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