Have you ever wanted to hear someone narrate a ski run in excruciating detail from a first-person perspective? No? Well, then how about that same person describing every bit of strategy and terminology employed in a high-stakes poker game without pausing for breath? If the answer is still in the negative, then you’re apt to dislike Molly’s Game — 140 minutes of pretension and self-indulgence that buries any intrinsic charm it might have possessed under a mountain of extraneous voiceover narration and a schizoid editing style that would leave even the most ADD-addled brain grasping in vain for the slightest semblance of cohesive linear narrative.
Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue-heavy brand of melodrama is obviously an acquired taste, one that I’ve appreciated in passing but never found particularly engaging. Having seen his directorial debut, I can’t imagine any reason why I’d ever feel compelled to revisit his earlier work with any serious interest. Molly’s Game indulges in all of the Sorkinian idiosyncrasies that have defined his writing but also places him at the reins of a visual catastrophe that reflects uncommonly poor judgment even for a novice, much less one who has had the privilege of spending so many years in the industry.
The story is intriguing, and the leads are strong, but there can be no question that Sorkin has squandered the potential inherent in his real-life source material. While Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier who passed up law school to run one of the most exclusive backroom poker games in the world — played aptly here by Jessica Chastain — seems like an intriguing character with a fascinating backstory, Sorkin chooses instead to focus on a series of drawn-out monologues interspersed with some of the most inept crosscutting this side of Memento. Idris Elba as her straight-arrow lawyer and Kevin Costner as her domineering psychologist dad both give similarly stellar performances and are both equally underserved by the film they’ve found themselves in.
As we watch Molly go from the quintessential angry young woman to a predictably angry middle-age woman, the missing piece of her character development is anything to make her remotely sympathetic — there’s plenty of pluck but no heart. Even when Sorkin beats us over the head with a third-act psychological exposition dump that literally spells out why she did what she did, it’s still difficult to see her as anything other than an overachieving screw-up. And while there’s a degree of dramatic tension to that dichotomy, it’s really not enough to justify nearly 2 1/2 hours of running time.
Sorkin’s more egregious fault, however, is his overwhelming lack of restraint as a director. Within the first 15 minutes of the film, he jumps from Jackie Robinson to ancient Egypt and back to his protagonist with the wholly unnecessary addition of some terrible graphics work that add little to characterization but much do narrative dissonance. Two things seem abundantly clear about Sorkin’s directorial instincts by the end of Molly’s Game: first, that he does not respect his audience’s intelligence enough to let them put things together for themselves; and second, that he’s so enamored of his own voice that he doesn’t know when to cut a scene. Sorkin has clearly missed the fundamental rule to successful cinematic storytelling — namely, “Show, don’t tell.” If I had any input on this one, it would’ve been to tell them not to show it. Rated R for language, drug content and some violence.
Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark, Biltmore Regal Grande.