Molly's Game is the true story of a woman who ran an exclusive high-stakes poker game and became a target of the FBI. It's extremely good, thanks to a typically-crisp script by Aaron Sorkin (who also makes his directing debut) and a rich performance by Jessica Chastain. Also terrific is Idris Elba who plays her lawyer, although -- as Sorkin said in a Q&A afterwards at a WGA screening -- he is the only fictional character. Sorkin explained that he needed a character who could address certain issues for dramatic purposes. Notably, those "issues" he talked about were among the trickier aspects of the film, the conflict between a character who isn't entirely sympathetic, yet has a deeply sympathetic foundation and even a heroic side. (Sorkin said he needed the fictional character to basically probe these sides.) It helps make the film all the more involving -- somewhat similar to Kevin Costner's role of her conflicted father. Costner doesn't have much screen time, but it permeates much of the film and leads to a tremendous scene between father and daughter late in the film that's a highlight. Sorkin does a wonderful job directing, as well. I also want to note that one of my favorite actors, Graham Greene, has a small but ultimately critical role as a federal judge, appearing in a couple scenes and is, as always, wonderful.
Here's the trailer, which does a very good job with the story, though oddly points up to why Sorkin said he agreed to direct, which wasn't his initial intention as they went through of a list of possible directors. He said the story being what it was, it would be easy for the film to highlight the "glamour" of the gambling and celebrity, "all the shiny objects," but what was so fascinating to him personally from all his many meetings with the real Molly Bloom was not that but her character and ultimate decency, which is why he decided to take it on. But while all sense of character is on high display in the film, it's lacking in the trailer -- as are the signature Sorkin monologues which are wonderful and permeate the movie, but nowhere to be seen here.
And as a bonus, here's an interview with the real Molly Bloom recently on the Ellen show. I use this one rather than others I came across since this directly relates to a very funny story Aaron Sorkin told at the Q&A. During this TV interview, Bloom very off-handedly mentions that the biggest loss she saw at any one single game was $100 million. When he was watching the program and saw this, Sorkin said he almost fell out of his chair. "I probably spent 100 hours talking with her before writing the script, and more on the set. And during all that time, she NEVER told me that story! After the show, I called her up and asked her, 'How in the world could you not have ever told me that story about someone losing a hundred million dollars??!!'" he told the packed theater of writers, which easily appreciated his angst. "She just sort of shrugged it off and said it was a bit boring, that it hadn't been very interesting." You could easily see his bemused frustration as he went on -- "And I said to her, 'I don't know if the scene would have made it in the film, but I'd have liked to have written it because..." (and he paused a moment) "I could have made it interesting!!!'" As you might imagine, the room of screenwriters burst into laughter.
Here's that interview. You will no doubt appreciate her tossed-off comment here...
A bit of background first about Battle of the Sexes. I actually had little interest in seeing the film, which is the story surrounding the famous tennis exhibition between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973. However, the two stars looked so good in TV ads that I was intrigued. My hesitancy was that I thought the real event was incredibly stupid when it happened at the time, and I've always though that it utterly ridiculous that people actually made a big deal of the exhibition. And still do. I’m glad for the “point” that people thought was being made -- that women could be impressive athletes, but it always struck me as foolish that so many people didn't grasp that already and FAR more importantly, that "point" was not made by the match because in reality the only “point” being made by the match was that the top female tennis player in the world was able to beat a 55-year-old hustler who was 20 years past his prime and a quarter-century older than his 29-year-old opponent.
it’s just always bugged me that people -- to this day -- have always made a Big Deal about that absolutely stupid exhibition. Riggs was never actually out to make a point, he was a hustler out to make a buck for himself. And happily, the movie makes that clear, showing that he was an addictive gambler, who hustled people for years, needed money and thought this would be attention-getting and he could make a lot of money, so he worked to set it up. That was his entire motivation. The rest was shtick to sucker people in.
But after hearing from a friend who largely enjoyed the film and thought it met my concerns about Bobby Riggs, I decided to go.
Unfortunately, I thought the movie was idiotic. I left after an hour. I wanted to leave after a half-hour, but stuck it out. In fact, I thought about leaving after 10 minutes. Everything was an archetype, every scene was written in Big Bullet Points. Other than King and Riggs who are reasonably-well fleshed out, everyone else else is one-dimensional and "just happens to" act SO conveniently to fit what the story needs at the moment. After having recently seen The Post, LBJ, Darkest Hour, and Molly’s Game, all real-life stories and each impeccable, this was like a bad TV movie in comparison. Steve Carell was very good, but I never particularly cared much about Bobby Riggs in the first place (and he's not in the movie much in the first half, it's mostly about Billie Jean King, and not even much about tennis, though a lot about her realizing her sexuality). Emma Stone was okay, but I was there to watch a movie about the iconic cultural event, not her coming-of-age story, most-especially when dealt with so heavy-handedly and conveniently like a cheesy romance novel. And as much as the movie does make the point that Riggs was only in it for the hokum, I could see the Sense of Importance creeping in. In fairness, maybe the second half was compelling and subtle, but nothing in the first half gave me the sense that anyone involved was going for that. Just lumbering, sweeping broad strokes. With Everything Happening and Said So Conveniently -- in Big Bullet Points.
The thing that stunned me is the people behind it. It’s one thing to know that the film was directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the hugely-talented couple who did Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks, both of which were quirky, smart, subtle, coy and absolutely terrific. But after getting home, I looked up the writer (I left before the end credits), figuring it was some beginning writer or hack. And the film was written by Simon Beaufoy who wrote (are you ready?) Slumdog Millionaire, The Full Monty, the glorious Salmon Fishing on the Yemen (one of my favorite, lesser-known films), 127 Hours, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
I was going to embed the trailer here, but decided I just don't care enough. It's not that the film is "bad" -- there are some nice things in it, and most especially it's not fair for me to make a judgement on what I didn't see -- but (for my taste) the first half was wildly uninteresting and done with the subtlety of an elephant. About a non-event.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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