The line ‘we’re about to do three years of therapy in three minutes’ would be met with an exhausted eye roll in any film, but coming in the last 15 minutes of an 140 minute, overindulgent Aaron Sorkin movie it positively feels like it’s daring the audience to yell at the screen. Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game, is an overwritten, overlong, and annoyingly self-regarding mess that offers very little of the thrilling optimism or rollicking fun of his career highlights like The West Wing or The Social Network.
It all begins well enough, with an absorbing skiing competition ending in shocking, bone-crunching tragedy for 20 year old Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain). She is forced to retire from athletics, and soon turns her considerable wit to running underground poker games in LA for Hollywood bigwigs and Silicon Valley business leaders. Based on a true story as it is, Sorkin’s script has to omit real names, and of the regular players, only the unidentified actor Player X (Michael Cera in a role more suited to Jesse Eisenberg) makes an impression. After a move to New York, Molly’s games start linking her to the Russian mob, for which she is arrested.
Molly’s Game flits between her heyday and her eventual trial, defended by idealistic lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), but neither strand is particularly compelling. Chastain is miscast in the lead, atypically unconvincing and not helped by a lecherous camera. Most scenes drone on for far longer than they need to, and Sorkin the director is too insipid to rein in the worst instincts of Sorkin the writer. Under a more forceful auteur, like David Fincher, Sorkin’s scripts can be pure magic, but Molly’s Game huge runtime really drags, especially in the flashbacks to Molly’s childhood under the tutelage of her generically demanding and unloving father Larry (Kevin Costner).
There are some brighter spots, and even though the writing isn’t in the same league, it’s fun to see Elba let loose on rapid, dense dialogue for the first time since his phenomenal turn as Stringer Bell in The Wire. He gets the climactic speech and really sells it, though the chemistry between him and Chastain leaves a lot to be desired. Chris O’Dowd also raises the pulse, bringing plentiful energy and a Steve Brule-esque weirdness to his role as drunken investment banker Douglas Downie.
Perhaps the most damning problem that Molly’s Game has is that it’s simply not a story with the moral weight that Sorkin’s heightened-reality dialogue demands. The trial of a gambling mogul, one which rather peters out into a nothing-y conclusion, is hardly a state of the nation emergency, and the visuals and acting fall well short of the extraordinary heights reached in The Social Network. With a more experienced and confident director at the helm, and at least 25 minutes cut out, there could have been a fascinating film made of Molly Bloom’s glitzy life, one that didn’t leave you sighing and looking at your watch. This is not it.