Beware of the actor, preacher or politician a little too in love with the sound of her or his own voice.
And be leery of a writer enamored with the clatter of his own keyboard.
Aaron Sorkin made his reputation on TV (“The West Wing,” “The Newsroom”) and film (“A Few Good Men,” “The Social Network,” “Steve Jobs”) as a writer of wordy and witty dramas — immensely quotable exercises in the dramatic writers’ art.
Given free rein by a new-ish studio to adapt a book about a bombshell poker “game runner” to the rich and famous, he gives us two hours and twenty minutes of over-written, endlessly-narrated and dramatically flat drama about Texas Hold’em and a woman making her way in an underground, cutthroat world of ruthless men in low-cut dresses.
“Molly’s Game” has a mesmerizing quality, and an exhausting talk-your-ear-off air that is almost shockingly uncinematic. I filled a notebook with examples of Sorkin’s camera showing us a long line of high-end booze labels, or card players entering a room, taking their seats and looking at their cards, as Molly (Jessica Chastain), in redundant voice-over narration, RECITING EXACTLY WHAT WE’VE JUST SEEN WITH OUR OWN EYES.
It’s bloody maddening. And it goes on and on and on, the laziest screenwriter’s crutch of them all. The guy’s got Oscars and Emmys. He should know better.
Molly Bloom was an aspiring Olympic skier, pushed by a hard-driving psychologist father (Kevin Costner, the best thing about the movie) until she wiped out one time too many and lost her chance at glory. Prodded and raised in bright, challenging conversation that augmented her schooling, she could have done anything with her life.
What she stumbled into instead was high-stakes poker among the rich and show-biz powerful of L.A. She transitions from working for tips, running her creeper boss’s
(Jeremy Strong) weekly game, to “The Poker Princess,” running her own well-oiled gambling enterprise, first in Hollywood, then in New York.
We’re given a fascinating peek inside this world, a “Guys and Dolls” of actors, producers, hedge fund managers and — as the film tells us in the beginning when Molly is arrested by a platoon of F.B.I. agents — Russian mobsters and money-launderers. She ran with a fast crowd, wrote a book about it, and got busted for who she knew and what she knew.
As her lawyer (Idris Elba. terrific) incredulously asks, “Did you commit a felony and then write a book about it?” Um, maybe.
The narrative skips back and forth, to her “on the couch” childhood of skiing and interrogations by her analyst father, to her assorted dealings with bullying men in her business to the court case this hustler with “integrity” — she refuses to name-names — prepares with her lawyer.
There’s no romance. Her assorted clients (Chris O’Dowd, Justin Kirk) lust after her with professions of undying love. They fall for the cornucopia of cleavage she uses as a calling card.
“You look like the Cinemax version of herself,” her lawyer complains.
Michael Cera is interestingly cast against type as a particularly ruthless, unnamed famous actor who doesn’t particularly care for this game he’s mastered.
“I don’t like poker. I like destroying people’s lives.”
It’s a mini-series’ worth of colorful characters — losers, card sharps, gambling addicts and Feds — and too-too clever banter of blisteringly smart exchanges. But when every remark is the prologue to a speech, nobody takes a breath and no character dares so much as stammer, clear her or his throat or break eye contact as they declaim, orate and speechify, it’s a bit too much about too little.
This is a small-scale scam, hyped and typed into Great Drama. Which it isn’t. If the real Molly Bloom wasn’t a bombshell plying her trade in Hollywood (a “Hollywood madam” of poker), she’d have never gotten the book deal for a memoir “that ends before the GOOD part.” Take away the “Decolletage: The Movie” element, and Chastain’s brittle, aloof performance would be getting no more notice than her equally chilly turn “Miss Sloane.”
For all his big-screen success, and really, nobody re-watches “Steve Jobs,” Sorkin has tailored his talents for the small screen, a close-up medium of faces where lightning-quick banter is what you need to hook viewers in between commercial breaks.
A great give-away in that regard is Chastain’s wardrobe, which is stacked (ahem) on top of the skinniest stilettos ever filmed. Sorkin frames her, in scene after scene, in medium to long shots, something TV cinematography would avoid. So we see her ungainly, broken-hip march through scene after scene, a powerful, focused woman who can’t walk in these damned things to save her life.
TV would have hidden her feet and preserved her character’s athletic grace. On the big screen, Sorkin has Chastain just charge ahead, chattering away as if she’s paid by the syllable, hoping nobody’s eyes leave her chest long enough to wonder what’s with the arthritic gait.
MPAA Rating: R for language, drug content and some violence
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Bill Camp, Chris O’Dowd
Credits:Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, based on Molly Bloom’s book. An STX release.