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Front Page - Friday, January 12, 2018

Critic's Corner: ‘Molly’s Game’ is talking too much

“Molly’s Game” could be the first “movie book” in the history of cinema. Audiobooks have been popular for years, but I don’t recall another instance where a narrator has read an entire book during a film.

I suppose having actress Jessica Chastain read “Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club – My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker” was easier than distilling the elements of the autobiographical tome down to its essence.

I’m exaggerating, of course. Surely Chastain didn’t read the entire book. But I bet she came close. In scene after scene, she reads and reads and reads, throwing character and plot details at viewers at a manic pace.

Perhaps screenwriter and first-time director Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”) thought that would give the film snap. But I think it backfired on him. I kept up for as long as I could and then gave up trying to follow who was who and what was what. The older couple behind me got up and left after 90 minutes, which means they missed the remaining 50.

I don’t think I’m alone in believing it’s better to show than to tell in a film. If your screenplay is so sodden with information that you have to have the main character explain every detail, you have yet to figure out how to write a screenplay.

This is unfortunate because buried beneath all the verbosity is a fun, meaningful tale about the real-life Molly Bloom.

I hardly have to explain the story, given how the sprawling title of Bloom’s book does the heavy lifting. But it did leave out a few details.

Bloom was an Olympic class skier whose athletic career ended in a crushing wipeout. While filling time before law school, she happened upon the world of underground, high-stakes celebrity poker. For nearly a decade, Bloom ran exclusive games in Los Angeles and New York City, with her players including Hollywood celebrities, athletes, business giants and – unbeknownst to her – the Russian mob.

In time, Bloom found herself in the sights of federal prosecutors, who wanted her to name the mighty men who played at her table. She refused.

The last detail must have been the hook for Sorkin, whose screenplay does a few things right. Although Bloom is an unsympathetic protagonist, her story ultimately is about doing the right thing when it isn’t easy. Through all the heavily padded storytelling, Sorkin allows Bloom’s one redeeming quality to shine through, which gives his film a touch of substance.

Fortunately, “Molly’s Game” has more than one redeeming quality. Chastain and Idris Elba, who plays Bloom’s high-priced lawyer, Charlie Jaffey, are both excellent. Chastain spends most of the movie looking stressed, as I’m sure Bloom was during this entire affair, but through her perpetual anxiety she paints a portrait of a woman who’s struggling with certain aspects of her character. This includes her desire to gain the approval of the men in her life – such as her critical and overbearing father.

Elba’s role doesn’t stretch him much as an actor, but that’s because he has enough range to make Jaffey’s moments of outrage seem effortless and enough charisma to make you believe his character could get away with charging a $250,000 retainer fee.

“Molly’s Game” works best when it slows down and is just a movie rather than a “movie book.” Sorkin nails several game-changing moments, including one where Bloom commits an actual crime for the first time, and handles the scenes between Bloom and her father, played by Kevin Costner, beautifully.

In these and other moments, it feels like Sorkin trusts the audience enough that he’s comfortable with showing, rather than telling, what’s happening.

In the end, though, “Molly’s Game” will benefit from home viewing, where people can pause, rewind and listen to the narration again to catch every detail. There’s an entertaining, well-acted character profile under all the rapid-fire narration, if you’re willing to unearth it.

I might be. I think the couple that sat behind me is done, though.