Molly's Game is hitting theaters. Get your tickets here!
Aaron Sorkin has always been a writer fascinated with being "in the room", to the point that his most famous work - the "Golden Age of TV" political drama The West Wing - was literally named for an area of the White House most will never get to see. His characters are all at the top of their class; elite generational minds, whip-smart yet folksy in their banter. Even his off-Broadway (turned Broadway) plays like A Few Good Men ('92) - which Rob Reiner transformed into the Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson film of the same name - placed us inside governmental structures like Guantanamo Bay, which the average citizen will never get a chance to see. He wants you to be where the action is, and where the deals are made. Nowwhere else.
Most of these rooms are (in some cases literally) built by (often real) men to both house decision-makers and generate fortunes. The Social Network ('10) is a Rashomon-style dramatization of how Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and a key crew of coders started one of the biggest media empires with nothing more than a few strokes from their Harvard dorm rooms. Moneyball ('11) saw Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) construct a clubhouse using statistical mathematics, going against the traditional wisdom of Major League Baseball. His HBO Series The Newsroom served as a platform for Keith Olbermann stand-in, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), to spout idealistic American rhetoric; a fusion of the Capra-esque dramatics he'd honed at NBC with the comedic chops he'd showed off with Sports Night before that.
These metaphorical "rooms" not only gain the men who run them money, but also women, when they're actually allowed to enter and participate on this often inequal playing field (a rather unfortunate downside to Sorkin's male-dominated writing style). The guys from Facebook pick up "groupies". Multiple romances blossom for all the dudes on Sports Night, The West Wing, and The Newsroom; perhaps the most emblematic being between the White House's Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), and feminist lobbyist Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker), which ends the way most of Sorkin's fictional flings do: doomed because the job dictates it. That's the other thing about these "rooms" the scribe's so taken with: they come before all else, even family. Just look to the way the titular Apple mogul (Michael Fassbender) abandons his own daughter in Steve Jobs ('15), as nothing will stop these driven geniuses from their ultimate goals.
Which is why Molly's Game - Sorkin's feature directorial debut, where he adapts the eponymous memoir by clandestine poker queen Molly Bloom - acts as a seemingly purposeful inversion of his previous thematic fascinations. For starters, Molly (Jessica Chastain) is a woman, building an underground gambling ring that makes her a millionaire because her jerk off low-level Hollywood boss (Jeremy Strong) looks a gift horse in the mouth when she initially runs it for him, keeping the fool's business afloat. When he cuts her off at the knees because he can't manage his money, Molly takes the game from him and sets it up in a lavish hotel, where hot models offer fine liquor, Montecristo cigars, and a chance to try and take down pots against literal movie stars like Player X (Michael Cera), one of the best Hold 'Em sharks in Los Angeles.
What Ms. Bloom has done is create her own "room": a man cave to attract high rollers that buy-in for $10K and tip her so well that, by the time her first game is shut down and relocated across the country to New York City, she's clearing hundreds of thousands in declarable income. Unfortunately, with these men comes a metric fuck ton of insecurities, as many fall in love with the unattainable gambling goddess, who at one point tries to get her worst player - an investment fund mogul she's given the pseudonym "Bad Brad" (Brian d'Arcy James) - to stop gambling because he's never going to win a hand in his life. But for Brad, it isn't about the money; it's about the environment Molly's created, allowing him to make friends and clients out of these other big name players because they like taking his earnings via large stacks of colorful chips (which he, in turn, gets them to pour into his own shady operation).
Like many of Sorkin's protagonists (especially in his television work), Molly is an upstanding beacon of morality, to the point that her attorney (Idris Elba) can't understand why she won't just give up the names of the individuals who gambled in her establishments after getting indicted by the Feds. But for her, revealing that info would mean ruining lives and families; a destruction of innocent individuals she cannot abide. In her "rooms", they found comfort and a place to unwind, while she got rich. There was nothing shady or illicit going on; no prostitution, like the FBI keeps insinuating (because of course sex had to be sold, she's a woman after all). No, everything she ever did was on the up-and-up, as the way the games were run was ultimately a reflection of her as a person: clean, taxable, and American as apple pie.
On some levels, Molly Bloom feels like Sorkin apologizing for his poor treatment of female characters in the past. Though he's no stranger to creating strong women in his works (just look at West Wing Press Secretary C.J. Craig [Allison Janney] for the best example), he's also historically allowed his smart men to make bumbling fools out of them (Newsroom producer MacKenzie McHale [Emily Mortimer] being unable to properly operate her email will never be less than baffling). However, he still makes Molly into a kind of sexless recluse, addicted to her work in the same way many of his former protagonists were, to the point that we never really know her outside of this smoky, boozy chamber she's made her business out of, or the ski slopes where she almost killed herself trying to make Olympic headlines and her father (Kevin Costner) happy. Her "room" becomes her prison, and lessens her dimensions as a character.
Daddy issues have long been the thorn in Sorkin's side, and Molly's Game is no different. Hell, this near fatal flaw may actually become hyper-focused, in the form of Larry Bloom (Costner), a renowned therapist whose approval Molly's sought her entire life. Where Billy Bean was always struggling to earn his daughter's affection while on the road for 80+ games a year in Moneyball, Ms. Bloom may be - according to Sorkin (via Larry), who crystalizes this theme in a third act scene so bad it almost sinks the whole movie - creating these games just so she can dominate powerful men like her father, who never gave her the time of day. So, even though Sorkin's finally made a movie where his main character doesn't have a dick, she's still metaphorically trying to castrate the papa who was a prick to her and her mother (via various instances of infidelity) throughout their lives. To wit, he made a movie about a woman that's still actually about a smart, shitty man.
Still, Molly's Game is peak Sorkin; the verbosity, the banter, the incredible characters - it's all there. While it's easy to nitpick the author for all of his strange tics and thematic fascinations, he's still one of the better writers to ever bang out a screenplay. Letting him direct his own words only leads to a heightening of both his greatest strengths and worst obsessions, which will be a dream for longtime fans, and a nightmare for those who haven't been able to stand his work in the past. In Molly Bloom, the writer's found the ultimate front-woman - a character who challenged him to push forward, while still feeling wholly Sorkinesque at the same time.
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