Verbal fireworks fizzle

Jessica Chastain faces charges of helping the Russian mafia in Molly's Game.
Jessica Chastain faces charges of helping the Russian mafia in Molly's Game.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION



141 minutes/Opens today

2.5 stars

The story: Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) has been arrested for actions related to her tell-all book, which details her years as an organiser of poker games for America's richest men. With lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), Bloom goes over her past in a bid to find a defence against charges of helping the Russian mafia.

This movie is the directing debut of Aaron Sorkin, best known for screenwriting legal and political dramas, among them The Social Network (2010, for which he won an Oscar) and television's The West Wing (1999 to 2006).

Here, the veil around the world of high-stakes poker is peeled away with the device of the courtroom drama. Sorkin used the same method in The Social Network, when he exposed the misogyny and male insecurity rampant in Silicon Valley through the civil lawsuit lodged against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) by the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer).

The new director, above all, is recognised for giving actors crackling dialogue. "The truth? You can't handle the truth" speech from A Few Good Men (1992), uttered by Jack Nicholson's Colonel Jessep, is classic Sorkin.

The verbal fireworks fly when Chastain's Bloom and Elba's Jaffey circle around each other, probing to see how much each one knows and whether they can trust each other. Jaffey, a fictionalised version of Bloom's real lawyer, is the audience surrogate, needling his client to uncover more than she has revealed in her tabloid-fodder book, a shallow, gossipy account heavy with celebrity name-dropping.

Despite the abundance of snappy comebacks and delicious zingers, the structural weaknesses of the story show. There is little depth to Bloom's character and putting intellectual meat on the bones of Bloom's story is an exercise in repetition.

Sorkin's desire to exonerate and generate sympathy for Bloom drives him to explain away her behaviour with flashbacks to her teen years, when she was a skier with Olympic potential. She has a pushy dad, played by Kevin Costner, a man whose perpetual disappointment in his daughter powered her ambition to be the best in an enterprise that was, at best, shady and, at worst, enabled real criminals.

Wait, Sorkin is saying she rose to the top because of daddy issues? Unfortunately, that seems to be true and repeating the flashback of the ski accident that changed her life adds no further insight.

Sorkin cannot be faulted for wanting to add heft to what is essentially a thin rags-to-riches tale spiced up with celebrity hobnobbing, a version of HBO's Entourage told from a businesswoman's point of view. If only he had left it at that, instead of this muddle that knows what it wants to be, but cannot quite get there.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2018, with the headline 'Verbal fireworks fizzle'. Print Edition | Subscribe