‘A Frat House for Degenerates’:
The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin was responsible for me breaking a promise some years ago. It was only a promise made to myself, but still.
I had vowed that I was never going to turn into one of those guys who binge- watches and gorges out on box-sets. I don’t know; it just seems kind of disrespectful to take a carefully-prepared meal down in one huge gulp. Then I came across (belatedly) The West Wing, the first few seasons of which were written by Sorkin. And that promise went out of the window pretty quick, I can tell you.
I thought the show was completely addictive, with that razor-sharp dialogue zipping along at top speed, while I have no doubt that, given the chance, about nine-tenths of the American TV-watching public would have voted in Martin Sheen as President.
Well, I tried watching the first episode again recently and boy, what a difference a few years make. I can still appreciate that Sorkin is something special, but it has dated in a way that a show that recent shouldn’t have. It’s not just that what we always knew was a pleasant fantasy about politicians at the very top all getting along swimmingly and just about ready to sacrifice themselves for the good of others; it’s also that the dialogue to me now seems as if it mostly comes from the same character – and anyway, real people don’t speak like that, do they?
And do you know what? I’m being inconsistent again; because the mile-a-minute dialogue of Bogart or Cagney or any number of the greats doesn’t bother me in the slightest. So why should this?
I’m inconsistent, too, in not caring for the overindulgence of a narrator’s voice in Sorkin’s first cinematic feature as a director –Molly’s Game – because, again, it didn’t bother me with Goodfellas. Maybe it’s because the exposition in Scorsese’s great film never takes from the visuals; something that can’t be said for Molly’s Game.
I looked in the mirror and was covered in bruises we’ll hear Molly (Jessica Chastain) say as she looks in the mirror and sees that she is covered in bruises. Sorkin sure as heck doesn’t want a one of his words to go to waste.
Molly Bloom is a real character who was a competitive skier before discovering that hosting high-stake poker games brought in a lot more wonga in the tips department. For this section of Molly’s Game, be warned that if you don’t know much about poker then the film doesn’t go overly out of its way to enlighten you. However, a lot of people will be more interested in spotting who the skuzzy celebrities are who are playing in these games. They’re not a pretty lot, that’s for sure, with Molly quite accurately describing the room where they play as ‘a frat house for degenerates’.
You’ll be disappointed on this simple level as well, though. As names have been changed to protect the guilty it’s not exactly easy (unless you’ve read the book) to spot who may be Leo de Caprio or who may be Ben Affleck. The one big exception is that of baby-faced Spider-Man actor Tobey McGuire who here has morphed into baby-faced actor Michael Cera who portrays Player X. If the film and book are even half accurate then McGuire is unpleasant to the point of being a pure sociopath; and I guess that in his treatment of her Ms. Bloom is a believer in that old adage of revenge being a dish best served cold. Certainly, where she goes easy on everyone else, I doubt that McGuire will ever again be able to show his face at a poker table without someone asking him to bark like a seal.
‘If you look down, that’s where you end up…’
Molly is still legit at the time of her takedown by Player X; but all of that changes when she moves to New York and becomes involved with the Russian Mafia, at which time the Feds start gunning for her and she has to hire a lawyer, Charlie Jaffey, played superbly by Idris Elba, who is here as good as I’ve ever seen the actor.
Sorkin clearly wants the audience to be rooting for Molly, but I wasn’t too convinced. She portrays herself as smart and clearly is, yet somehow seems to think that she can maintain a status quo with Russian gangsters…? Sure, she falls back on the fact that by this time she is developing a drink and drugs dependency, but even so…
And just on that latter, there is never the same sense of urgency and desperation that there is during similar scenes in – again – Goodfellas. Or, say, Flight. There’s just this feeling of Oh look, Molly’s turned into a drug addict.
To be honest, Molly is a Mother Teresa of a poker princess, even trying to talk some of her punters out of losing their money – and listen, maybe she did just that. Maybe she was the world’s nicest person, even if her dangerous skiing among members of the public didn’t endear me to her at all.
At the end of the day, this is a movie, not a documentary. Still, adding that piece about Molly’s skiing career ending because of a million-to-one accident when she goes over a small branch (not true) is kinda crucial, given its role in both beginning and end. I could also have lived very happily without that completely phony exchange between Molly and her dad (Kevin Costner); or Charlie telling this criminal that he’s representing how she is a role model for his daughter; or the very laboured and repeated references to Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. Listen, back then Molly behaved like a greedy and venal woman who also seems to have had a lot of really good points — not a poor soul who was hanged because of some made-up charges of witchcraft.
I guess that I’ll have to put my first movie of 2018 down as another of those films that I wanted to like a hell of a lot more than I did.