Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Reserved Seating: MOLLY'S GAME

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo that saw the new Jessica.

Rob: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: Molly’s Game, starring Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, is the directorial debut from acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Steve Jobs, The Social Network). Based on the real-life memoir of the same name, it’s the story of Molly Bloom’s (Chastain) transition from competitive skiing prodigy to ringleader of the most exclusive high-stakes poker games in New York and Los Angeles. Though Molly’s strength and intelligence help her build an empire, her unwitting involvement with the mafia lands her in federal court on racketeering charges. Desperate and broke, Molly turns to attorney Charlie Jaffey (Elba), who agrees to build her case if she promises to come clean about what she knows, when she knew it, and how her childhood (especially her overbearing father Larry, played by Kevin Costner) informs both her ambition and her insecurity.

I’m an easy mark for Aaron Sorkin’s world — a place full of hyper-literate professionals whose ability to dispatch adversaries with righteous monologues is matched only by their tendency to do so while walking briskly in dress shoes — so the stellar cast and intriguing story of Molly’s Game were just bonuses. The writer’s familiar structure feels a bit uninspired at first (stories framed around depositions and testimonies make up a huge chunk of his work), but Chastain and Elba give the wordy script little more bounce than we’re used to, a (frankly) sexier edge. Chastain is captivating in a way that I’d feel like a pig elaborating on for too much longer. Thankfully, that otherworldly quality serves the story well.

Speaking of which, Molly’s Game got quite a bit of buzz for being the first film in Sorkin’s pantheon to center primarily around a heroine, and while I disagree with the common criticism that Sorkin can’t write women, I was happy to see him choose this project for his first directorial effort. I really enjoyed watching Molly ignore, tolerate, and then beat the shit out of the male-dominated Hollywood and corporate elite without any one specific issue being solely about gender (Costner’s character even pokes fun at this easy thematic crutch later in the film). Molly is simply a powerful person engaging with other powerful people and using her assets as intelligently and productively as she can, ultimately rejecting what the film calls the “Cinemax” version of herself. That’s what we want, I think.

Anyway, there’s a lot to dig into. What did you think of Molly’s Game?
Adam: I thought it was very good. Molly’s Game is one of the more entertaining movies I saw last year and I would watch again in a heartbeat. Jessica Chastain is an incredible actress and a really good fit for an Aaron Sorkin protagonist. She’s smart, brazen, ambitious; it makes for an interesting lead character, and Chastain conveys those traits very well. More than anything, though, Molly’s Game is just a really interesting story, well-told. There are no gimmicks here, just old-fashioned solid drama elevated by mostly strong performances. These type of movies used to be made all the time in the ‘80s and ‘90s and it’s refreshing to see a studio-ish/non-indie (STX Films) drama for adults again that is mostly focused on being interesting and entertaining first. Every year there seems to be a movie like Molly’s Game that people sort of write off come awards time as not being a “contender,” but then I see it and like it more than most of the films that are supposed to be more award-worthy. I think the final thesis of Molly’s Game (if there is one, no spoilers) is a little underwhelming (there really isn’t much of a universal message...maybe about how shitty men are or successful people fail but are driven to be successful again in new ways??), but the journey getting there is more than worth it.

What did you think of Sorkin as a director? I thought it was a good effort (it feels a little self-conscious, like he’s trying to take a page from The Social Network Fincher or a flashy type of director) but the writing is impressive as always. Also, at the end of the movie, when they said Molly Bloom was in her mid-thirties, did it make you feel really lazy? I sure felt that way.
Rob: The opening was a little choppy, a clash of Social Network smooth and Big Short loud (speaking of which, was that Fincher in a cameo on the ski slope?), and there are a few moments of distracting showmanship throughout (I’m thinking of the home invasion scene), but I was mostly settled in once the three timelines were established and the plot started moving. Directorially, it’s a good start; I don’t think Sorkin knows how to support his musical dialogue with visuals the way Fincher does, but he can learn.

Brief aside for West Wing fans: Jaffey works for Gage Whitney, the fictional law firm that Sam Seaborn leaves (in spectacular fashion) to join the Bartlet campaign. I giggled at that.

Anyway, I agree that Molly’s Game will likely get lost in the awards shuffle because isn’t Bombastic or Important enough — like you said, it’s a good, old-fashioned story told well — but I’ll certainly be revisiting it more often than many of its contemporaries. Its length and immersiveness make it a great lazy Sunday afternoon movie, actually. As for a final thesis, I almost wish they’d have built to the ski slope reveal (no spoilers) a little more, which might have cost them that Costner bench scene but kept the pace a little tighter. Costner’s moment felt a bit heavy-handed, especially coming so quickly after Elba’s argument with the other attorneys. I didn’t love the idea that Molly’s men come to save her in the end. But that’s a nit-pick. Speaking of your boy, how’d he do? Where does this go on the Costner scale?

Adam: I must have missed Fincher on the ski slope, but I saw this Christmas night in a full theater so the Coca Cola Freestyle Holiday Mix was probably distracting me. The Costner-Chastain park bench therapy scene...oh, we need to talk about that. That was some inorganic shit right there. How would he know where she was if she was going for a walk break between meetings in law offices? It was like something out of It’s a Wonderful Life. That aside, I loved the scene once the logistics of it were out of the way. Costner is so great at cutting through the bullshit and unafraid of just being a dick, which Sorkin wisely hones in on. The guy can do no wrong in my eyes. As far as the Costner scale, this is 7 out of 10 Costner. There should have been more Costner. I can’t believe he and Chastain were father-daughter. How was the rest of the family not just sitting there in awe every dinner looking at these two gods? What a lucky family (aside from the denial of approval and all that other stuff). I have to make one point, though, and I think we’ll have a disagreement on goes...Idris Elba is good, not great, right? I haven’t seen The Wire, but I’m never as blown away by him in movies as I think I’m supposed to be. He’s very charismatic, but I dunno...what am I missing? My favorite performance of his for me still might be This Christmas. I can’t watch that anymore, though, because Chris Brown plays the baby of the family. I know that because his name is Baby and he’s nervous about singing. He’s less nervous about being a genuinely terrible person.
Rob: I think the speed of the dialogue tripped his accent up a little, which might have made him feel a little wooden. I love him as Stringer Bell on The Wire (in which he also uses an American accent), but that character lives in a much lower gear than this one. Elba doesn’t quite fit the mold of the Spastic Sorkin Lawyer, an archetype usually reserved for actors like Oliver Platt or Bradley Whitford, guys who are on their back foot more often. He’s better when he can spread out and control a room a little more gracefully. I don’t think Elba took anything away from the movie, but it felt at times like he was trying to keep up with it.

Adam: Good call. Like you said, he’s not a distraction but Chastain is such a heavyweight in this movie I think he seems a little overmatched. Is it just me or does it seem like Jessica Chastain came out of nowhere? I’m so glad she did, but it was like she wasn’t in movies and then she was in six movies in 2011 or something and has been consistently one of the best actresses working in film ever since. Before we wrap, I also want to say I liked Michael Cera in this, too. I dig that he’s not just the “aw shucks” nerd anymore; now he’s the bitter nerd. It’s also perfect that he’s playing (what I’ve read) an actor based on the real-life Tobey Maguire. Apparently, emo Peter Parker is just his real personality. “Now dig on this!” (snaps fingers).

Rob: Chastain is unstoppable. I’m not 100% where she came from either (I saw Interstellar but missed Miss Sloane), but I consider it my fault for not paying close enough attention. She’s got mine now. She’s confident without overreaching. You always believe she’s in control. She never gives away any more than she needs to, but she’s never cold or aloof. I don’t want to focus on her appearance (which is...again...ridiculous), but I loved watching the evolution of her style and body language as a kind of nonverbal character development. It’s done mostly in the background, but it works so well. And Cera is great! I loved that Sorkin pitches his awkwardness toward menacing. There’s just enough of him in the movie that he keeps our attention without ever getting too familiar. Once some ambiguity is introduced to his character, I truly believed he could go either way.
One last thing: I liked the way Sorkin staged the actual poker games, which can be so hard to do in an interesting way. Instead of making the table and players the center of attention (which Martin Campbell does well in Casino Royale), Sorkin centers Molly, who’s usually on her laptop floating around random edges of the room. It’s like she’s the focal point and the table is a satellite orbiting her. It keeps the players as faceless and inconsequential to us as they are to her. She’s managing them; her only concern is how they play. It’s really cool.

Anyway, it’s a strong Mark Ahn for me on Molly’s Game, and a good omen for theatergoing in 2018.

Adam: I read up on Jessica Chastain on Wikipedia. It looks like she did some television and mostly theater before having a breakout in 2011. Guess what? She was in a play with Al Pacino! And he later vouched for her! Because Al Pacino IS THE BEST! I’m glad you mentioned Interstellar, because one of my favorite things about that movie is how much McConaughey likes his daughter over his son. I totally get it, though. Anyways, a big Mark Ahn for me for Molly’s Game. It was in that 11-20 range for favorite movies I saw in 2017. It’s just exactly what you’d want out of a movie. What do you want to review next time?

Rob: Pacino knows what’s up. In fact, let’s get sexy with Al and Ellen Barkin in 1989’s Sea of Love next week. I know the movie isn’t about this, but I keep imagining Pacino as a ship’s captain. You know, with the hat?

Adam: Time to see the Hungman! Yankees Brunch!!! Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.


  1. Luuuuuuv'd the bench scene. It really brought everything together and felt like a real "movie moment" that elevated the rest of the film. Costner was so good there. The part about finding the mafia dude could've easily been bad in the hands of another actor -- not necessarily a bad actor, just a less believable one saying those specific lines. He killed it.

  2. Costner did kill it. I actually thought Elba was pretty great too. I thought he was very believable and terrific with the dialogue. But obviously Chastain is the show here. My gosh, she is incredible.

  3. One of the things people should keep in mind with Idris Elba's various performances is that he's often called upon to do some American accent (e.g. "The Wire", "Molly's Game"), yet he's British. This is not uncommon for many white British actors. However many people just assume that Idris Elba (or Daniel Kaluuya, John Boyega, Lennie James, etc.) is an American, and don't realize that, often, he's not acting with his natural speaking accent. As with most actors, when he is, he can be significantly better (e.g. the U.K. television series "Luther").

  4. There's many white actors that people think are American too until they hear them speak elsewhere. I don't think it has anything to do with race. Plus nothing tops Stringer Bell.

  5. I shouldn't have to mention this but the comments have taken a weird turn. I did not mention anything about Idris Elba's accent or especially his race when I introduced my question to Rob about him. My hesitation to call him great is solely because of hype. I'm guessing he had roles that were more impactful on television than he has on film so far. Being that I don't watch much television, I get a pre-Out of Sight Clooney vibe from him where there's something there but he's never had a breakout role in a movie. Maybe it was Beasts of No Nation...I'm not sure. I've seen almost all of his other film work and it's left me satisfied just not overwhelmed.

    1. And I only brought up his accent because I thought it was relevant to Adam's point. I know Elba is English (I'm a fan of Luther and other work he's done with his normal speaking accent), and I think his American (Baltimore) accent on The Wire is spot-on. I was simply bringing up the pace of the dialogue as a possible reason for what Adam was sensing in the performance this time around.

  6. Oh I was just responding to anonymous there

    1. and in regards to the article, I agree heavily with Rob's assessment that he doesn't 100% fit the spastic Sorkin type.

    2. Got it. Thanks for clarifying. Just didn't want there to be that kind of misunderstanding if Anonymous or yourself insinuated that from what I wrote.

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