As someone who doesn’t (or at the very least didn’t) see many movies each year in theaters, I’m generally selective of what I go see there. They are all well reviewed and either from creators who I am a fan of heading in or film series I am already a fan of. What this means is that I generally go see films I can pretty safely know that I will like beforehand. My reviews thus far have generally born that out, with the one film I was merely iffy on is the only film I took a flier on based entirely on reviews. So, it is with rare pleasure that I can finally prove what those who read my Doctor Who reviews have known for years, that I am far from soft on films.
Now that I’ve gone and spoiled how this review is gonna wind up, let’s delve into how it happened. I don’t have a ton of exposure to first time director (also serving as writer and producer) Aaron Sorkin. Of his TV shows (most famously The West Wing and most infamously The Newsroom), I’ve seen exactly one episode, the first for Sports Night which I found insufferable. I have seen A Few Good Men (I grew up with it and enjoy it quite a bit), Charlie Wilson’s War (it’s fine), Moneyball (likewise fine but simultaneously better than expected and robbed of any interesting part of the book), and Steve Jobs (standard quality biopic), but still I don’t feel the attachment for love or hatred to his style. I have seen enough and heard enough to know he’s a big fan of talking and has a distinct style of dialogue though and that I can’t count myself as a fan of it. So, if you are a fan, take a number of my complaints with a grain of salt because my has this movie made me hate it.
The story tells of Molly Bloom, sister to the famous moguls skier and football player, who ran a series of underground poker games for years and is now fighting to stay out of jail. How she built her empire is left to the flashbacks as well her childhood with her asshole father (who if you didn’t like the way Whiplash treated J.K. Simmons’ character in the end, you’ll hate it here too) the movie excuses largely because his sons were successful. A major theme of the movie is how she is overshadowed by the successes of her two brothers and constantly trying to prove herself to the men in her life (I hope you like watching someone deal with daddy issues), but the film neglects that Jeremy, who was fun to watch in college at CU, bombed in both the Olympics and the NFL (which as a Philadelphia resident I saw firsthand) since it doesn’t fit the narrative.
The story is told mostly through Jessica Chastain’s narration where we are constantly and coldly informed how she is thinking, how she feels, what is currently going on, and any bit of terminology that Sorkin learned in research and wanted to show off. Bloom makes a point of saying early that she looked up every term or phrase she didn’t recognize, and the film is a perfect reflection of that as it piles on useless information. Sorkin is afraid for even a second of quiet and this feels like a film constantly rewritten to fill it instead of honing it with every minute of the 140-minute runtime painfully felt. When the overwritten narration isn’t blathering on, we get a bunch of dialogue where characters repeat things we heard in the narration or just say exactly what is on their mind or what they are doing. Dialogue exists merely to convey information to the viewer.
The cast is well stocked with Chastain, Idris Elba as her speechifying lawyer, Kevin Costner as her dad, and Chris O’Dowd as a drunk gambler, but with the exception of Michael Cera playing the Tobey Maguire stand-in which Cera is able to play effectively largely through glances and smiles, they aren’t really given the space to show any of that talent. Chastain especially has the misfortune of playing someone intended to be cold and mathematical about basically everything which she does fine at, but she is betrayed by idiotic dialogue which you can practically feel how proud Sorkin is at having written something so “clever”. It leaves he character far less interesting than the film constantly insists she is (the movie doth protest too much).
When I watch a bad movie, I like to at least imagine in my head “what could have fixed this”, but the best I could come up with is “let someone else do it”. Sorkin’s direction is largely competent though there are a few poor stylistic decisions (see any instance of slow motion), but the writing fails structurally thanks to the flashbacks which don’t seem to be used to inform the present and of course stylistically which overwhelms every other bit of the film. In fact, it isn’t really a film is it? It’s a writing exercise/research paper that someone decided to film thinking it would be more interesting. I’d say to read the book instead, but considering how many times it is brought up (along with how wonderful of a person she is with aside from an in the past drug problem), I’m inclined to just treat this film like any other pieces of glorified product placement, ignore it and avoid the product it is meant to advertise for, a fact aided by the way they unintentionally(?) portray that book as uninteresting and lacking detail.