Sorkin, Chastain should be a lot more embarrassed than Molly for one of Hollywood’s worst of the century

“Molly’s Game’ is one of the worst movies of the decade. That Hollywood made it is not a total surprise, just embarrassing. One has to wonder if it’s not a film but an expensive hustle, the type that rich, clouted folks who can afford $10,000 card games might do just for the hell of it to establish a new boundary for audience gullibility.

The artistic offender is Aaron Sorkin, a brilliant writer rightly acclaimed for multiple hits. Nobody’s perfect. His last effort, “Steve Jobs,” was a fishing expedition that hooked maybe a couple of old boots. This time, Sorkin is not just writing but directing. His collaborator is the renowned actress Jessica Chastain, who believes the upper half of her body can carry a 140-minute film. Here, she certainly isn’t interested in skiing, men or friendships of any kind.

“Molly’s” is one of those memoir-type “mulligan” films where an attractive protagonist admits a big mistake in life but insists (and the script will ultimately assure us) that he/she is really a good person with dubious parents who (through circumstances that really aren’t his/her fault) doesn’t deserve the grief she is given. Coincidentally, there’s another one of those movies playing at the same time called “I, Tonya.” But that one at least is put together by a 3rd party and not straight from the subject’s book.

Molly’s excuses pile up from the beginning. She had a congenitally bad back. Daddy was tough and cruel and not loving. She hit a tiny branch while skiing. Because she didn’t want to borrow from people, she spurned Harvard Law (despite having a better LSAT score than most of its admittees) and worked her way up from the basement of Hollywood and unfortunately landed a job with some enfant terrible who let her watch poker games with Hollywood stars and make a few thousand a night while having the audacity to cut her $400-a-week salary. The movie would have us think that no one was actually playing cards but merely watching Molly’s body while she Googled.

Sorkin directs this material as though he believes every word of Bloom’s book. This is the first movie in history in which a father thumps his chest for being a good dad because his son was a 6th-round NFL draft pick. Sorkin rewards this dad with the ability to deliver 3 years worth of therapy in about 3 minutes. Sorkin casts for this part Kevin Costner, whose handsomeness has never really translated into “actor,” who cinematically once figured out the conspiracy behind the JFK murder but this time despite raising a family on a college psych professor’s salary has no idea his daughter 1) was running million-dollar card games or 2) held a deep-seated, accurate grudge against him. Sometime after this ordeal, she will probably impress him with the knowledge that she issued 1099 tax forms for her Playboy Bunny associates. And bring him to tears with the revelation that she was told to slow down after opening her door while being arrested, unable to convince the arrestors that all of her games were 2 years ago.

What kind of analysis would Molly get from a real psychologist? Probably something about picking the wrong men and risk-taking and emotional detachment and why she denies being Irish at least 3 times and how it’s remarkable at the end of the film that she even knows where her mother lives given the limited amount of time she apparently spent with her.

About 5 times as much voice-over narration from Chastain is supplied than is needed. This is a great example of a writer needing a director to rein him in; that can’t happen in this case, so the burden fell to Chastain, who whiffed. Character dialogue is not a beautiful give and take — which Sorkin is most certainly capable of — but a ping-pong match; trying to recall what was said 10 seconds earlier is difficult if not impossible.

The hapless Idris Elba takes nearly the entire 140 minutes to determine what his defense might be, presumably because his children interrupt his billable hours. Neither he, nor Costner, nor any of the supposed Hollywood/Wall Street/Washington big shots is remotely funny nor wise. Somewhere in the dialogue it is probably stated how Elba’s character ended up on Bloom’s radar screen; other than having lots of rooms in his office and lots of space between the office furniture, he doesn’t seem to have any clue how the system works and (at least according to the script, which hopefully is different than real life) even hands over confidential texts from his other clients to a gambling operator, which probably should get him disbarred, his general detachment notwithstanding. Sorkin tries to make us think Elba has reached a Daniel Webster moment off the record with prosecutors, except the judge apparently didn’t know about or care about any information exchanged between the prosecution and defense.

The only reason anyone cared about Molly Bloom’s book is because her card games supposedly involved at least one notable Hollywood actor, said to be Tobey Maguire but perhaps others. That might be interesting material for a movie, except apparently those names can’t be used (that should’ve been a red flag to anyone who financed this monstrosity), and so we have lesser actors playing fictional people who may or may not sort of resemble the real people who actually played cards. And get this: They bankrolled each other.

Most films would correctly try to find a match for Molly and let the audience hope it happens. This is not Sorkin’s game; he barely engineered a single date in “A Few Good Men.” Molly’s best hand is rejection. Rarely has so much beauty been squandered in a feature film.

The early returns are in. Richard Roeper (an excellent critic) of the Chicago Sun-Times actually gave it 4 stars and calls it a “home run.” Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times deems it an “incorrigible, unapologetic blast — a dazzling rise-and-fall biopic.” Assigning a mere 3 stars, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune decided “It’s a good, brash biopic.”

There are a few voices of reason, but even those are disappointingly feeble. The outstanding and thoughtful Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle for whatever reason praises Chastain but wonders, “Is there anything here that is worth 140 minutes of our time?” Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, in a barely negative review, admits “Molly isn’t interesting” and “most of the action and fun is at the table” but decides “Empowerment is one way to look at this story, though only if you sentimentalize its main character.”

The Associated Press review, by Jocelyn Noveck, describes Bloom “as a sort of feminist heroine” but omits that Bloom succeeds like unfortunately too many cinematic feminists, with low-cut blouses. Dargis calls it “deeply unpersuasive feminism.”

About the only provocative moment of this project is the viewer’s opportunity to evaluate the judge’s sentence. Keep in mind, these are among the dumbest feds in history; they not only are all wrong about Molly and bungle their sentencing recommendation, they don’t even know what “Molly” means to street thugs. That someone organized card games does not seem a capital offense. That she grossed 7 figures doing so and in the process enabled people to either run a Ponzi scheme or launder money or go broke, and did it twice in different cities, and is capable of admission to Harvard Law, suggests this is someone who needs to be stopped (she can’t vote, she laments) and not actually praised by a judge for being a victim.

Buy a ticket to this film, you are not appreciating art but funding the Bloom family shrine. Sorkin would have us believe Molly is a heroine for 1) trying to talk gambleholics enabled by her activity out of wagering even more money and 2) refusing to turn over evidence (How the feds could not just subpoena her texts is unclear) and 3) settling for a pretzel when her values have cost her a hot dog. (Seriously, this happens.) Chastain is so unconvinced of this story, she opts for the Victoria’s Secret approach. There is some rich guy who admitted to her that he wishes he’d never had any kids, so Molly is going to put her freedom on the line — no deal — of protecting the children from learning this information that they presumably aren’t already aware of and presumably can’t hash out with their own fathers in 3-minute therapy sessions covering 3 years. Sorkin and Bloom even quote Churchill at the end. That’s another movie that’s playing at the same time, “Darkest Hour,” a title that could hold its own here. Chastain’s on to something; this one’s a boob.

1 star
(December 2017)

“Molly’s Game” (2017)
Starring Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom ♦ Idris Elba as Charlie Jaffey ♦ Kevin Costner as Larry Bloom ♦ Michael Cera as Player X ♦ Jeremy Strong as Dean Keith ♦ Chris O'Dowd as Douglas Downey ♦ J.C. MacKenzie as Harrison Wellstone ♦ Brian d’Arcy James as Brad ♦ Bill Camp as Harlan Eustice ♦ Graham Greene as Judge Foxman ♦ Justin Kirk as Jay ♦ Angela Gots as B ♦ Natalie Krill as Winston ♦ Stephanie Herfield as Jesse ♦ Madison McKinley as Shelby ♦ Joe Keery as Trust Fund Cole ♦ Michael Kostroff as Louis Butterman ♦ Claire Rankin as Mother ♦ Victor Serfaty as Diego ♦ Whitney Peak as Stella ♦ Jon Bass as Shelly Habib ♦ Joey Brooks as Eli ♦ Samantha Isler as Teen Molly ♦ Piper Howell as 7-Year-Old Molly ♦ Kjartan Hewitt as Player ♦ Khalid Klein as Neal ♦ Chris Hoffman as Derrick ♦ Matthew Matteo as Bobby ♦ Jacob Blair as Jeremy Bloom ♦ Chris Boyle as Jordan Bloom ♦ Duane Murray as Agent Delarosa ♦ Jeff Kassel as Donnie Silverman ♦ Dan Lett as David Sagen ♦ Timothy Mooney as Reggie ♦ Moti Yona as Iliya Gershen ♦ Leo Vernik as Alex Gershen ♦ John Nelles as Ski Coach ♦ Jason Weinberg as John G ♦ Rachel Skarsten as Leah ♦ Linette Doherty as Court Clerk ♦ Robert B. Kennedy as Alexander ♦ Morgan David Jones as Brennan ♦ Elisa Moolecherry as Bankruptcy Lawyer ♦ Alan C. Peterson as Stranger ♦ Dov Tiefenbach as Club Customer ♦ Bo Martyn as Club Girl ♦ Amy Rutherford as Doctor ♦ Frank Falcone as Pit Boss ♦ Kris Siddiqi as Guest ♦ Jonathan Purdon as Jonathan Hirsch ♦ David Reale as LA Player ♦ Jake Goldsbie as LA Player ♦ Todd Thomas Dark as LA Player ♦ Chris Owens as LA Player ♦ Gary Brennan as LA Player ♦ Tom Black as LA Player ♦ Ken Linton as LA Player ♦ Zachary Goodbaum as LA Player ♦ Tony Stellisano as LA Player ♦ Tommy Julien as LA Player ♦ Jason Pithawalla as LA PLayer ♦ James Hurlburt as LA Player ♦ John Krpan as LA Player ♦ Shane Harbinson as LA Player ♦ Vasilios Pappas as LA Player ♦ Rae Anne Stroeder as EMT #1 ♦ Alanna Macaulay as EMT #2 ♦ George Tchortov as Mike Davidoff ♦ Thomas Hauff as Mr. Sernovitz ♦ Ari Cohen as NY Player ♦ David Lafontaine as NY Player ♦ David Gingrich as NY Player ♦ Jeff Parazzo as NY Player ♦ Bruno Verdoni as Pat ♦ Rico Tudico as Paul ♦ Mary Ashton as Tracy (Commentator) ♦ Lizzy DeClement as Skate Rental Woman ♦ Catherine Burdon as Female Agent ♦ Laura Cilevitz as Jeremy’s Girlfriend ♦ Amy Stewart as Jordan’s Wife ♦ Steve Brandes as Court Marshall ♦ Phil Primmer as Ski Patrol Leader ♦ Gurdeep Ahluwalia as Commentator #1 ♦ Dan Duran as Commentator #2 ♦ Vladimir Tsyglian as Arthur Azen ♦ Dennis Drummond as Azen’s Lawyer ♦ Nicholas Banks as Sigel’ Lawyer ♦ Michael Cohen as Sigel ♦ Karl Danhoffer as Habib’s Lawyer ♦ Daoud Heidami as Hot Dog Vendor ♦ Maria Lerinman as Waitress ♦ Alyssa Veniece as Bartender ♦ Robin Read as Frederick ♦ Randy Noojin as Plaza Doorman

Directed by: Aaron Sorkin

Written by: Aaron Sorkin (screenplay)
Written by: Molly Bloom (book)

Producer: Amy Pascal
Producer: Mark Gordon
Producer: Matt Jackson
Co-producer: Lauren Lohman
Co-producer: Lyn Lucibello
Executive producer: Oren Aviv
Executive producer: Felice Bee
Executive producer: Stuart M. Besser
Executive producer: Adam Fogelson
Executive producer: Leopoldo Gout
Executive producer: Robert Simonds
Executive producer: Donald Tang
Executive producer: Wang Zhongjun
Executive producer: Wang Zhonglei

Music: Daniel Pemberton
Cinematography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Editing: Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham, Josh Schaeffer
Casting: Francine Maisler
Production design: David Wasco
Art direction: Doug Huszti
Set decoration: Patricia Larman
Costume: Susan Lyall
Makeup and hair: Vincent Sullivan, Sarah Craig, Stephanie Ingram, Ryan Reed, Linda Dowds, Carol Hartwick, Alastair Muir
Thanks: Gabriela Revilla Lugo


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