Every actor on promotional duty bleats the same dull line on their latest movie or TV product: “The writing was so good.” Aaron Sorkin has become the patron saint of this hucksterism. His talking-while-walking specialty (from TV’s West Wing to the movie The Social Network) is considered masterly, but his shtick merely exemplifies the overexcited, sarcastic babbling that has come to define contemporary pop drama. Sorkin may not be Shakespeare, O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, or David Mamet — hell, he’s not even Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, or Mike Judge — but you can tell he thinks he is a combination of them all when you hear the torrents of blather in his theatrical directorial debut, Molly’s Game.
It’s the real-life story of Olympic-level skier Molly Bloom (played by Jessica Chastain), who quit the sport after physical injury and then embarked on a new test of nerves, running a high-stakes poker game that eventually brought her up on mob and racketeering charges by the FBI in 2013. Sorkin continues the preoccupation of his “Lives of the Celebrities” series that venerated Mark Zuckerberg, Billy Beane, Steve Jobs, and now Bloom, taking Hollywood’s position (prior to Trump) of glorifying entrepreneurship. This time, Sorkin adds feminist chutzpah (his next hagiography subject could be Oprah).
Firebrand loner Molly never quits; she challenges all comers with an unpleasant determination that expresses contemporary, drug-fueled, selfishness, “the Cinemax version of me,” which, unfortunately, has become Chastain’s unlikable stock-in-trade. (The actress’s taste in scripts suggests that she mistakes principle for daring, trust for courage — the opposite of her charming film debut in Jolene.)
Sorkin’s idea of character depth is to show that Bloom’s ruthlessness is Freudian; she’s still trying to please Daddy. Kevin Costner’s performance in the patriarch’s role evokes his solid dad in Man of Steel until Sorkin reduces him to something like the ghost of Hamlet’s father — alas, he lacks the writing audacity to make him an actual ghost. Instead, in Sorkin’s literal-minded imagination, Costner embodies the forgiveness of guilt that has been Hollywood cliché since Ordinary People and Good Will Hunting.
It’s no surprise that Sorkin lacks visual aplomb (the flashbacks and montages seem like second-unit stuff). But he’s brazen enough to break the Tarantino rule that voice-overs are considered a storytelling weakness and lets Molly prattle with summa cum laude bravado. Sorkin adapts Bloom’s memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker, as if to match the title’s loquaciousness. He presses all of Hollywood’s PC buttons. This includes female martyrdom (a scene of the ugliest female battery in any 2017 movie) and a suave, erudite, single black dad defense attorney (Idris Elba) who saves the life of a white woman.
Molly’s Game is a movie for those suckers who really do believe we are experiencing “the golden age of television.” Sorkin flaunts so much TV-style verbiage that Molly’s descriptions of what we already see render the film visually redundant. Action, characterization, and atmosphere — the things that made classic gambling films from The Shanghai Gesture to The Bay of Angels and California Split so exciting — don’t register.
Sorkin is careful not to offend the Hollywood elite who figure into Bloom’s story. Bloom shields her industry poker players by not naming them.
Instead, Sorkin is careful not to offend the Hollywood elite who figure into Bloom’s story. Bloom shields her industry poker players by not naming them, even though one quick shot suggests Ridley Scott, and the ephebe casting of Michael Cera feels like deliberate misdirection. Sorkin tells a long-winded game, admiring a woman whose morally confused actions are idealized by the equally corrupt present-day judicial system. Molly’s Game goes beyond cynicism; playing TV’s #MeToo game, it’s a setback for women and for movies.
Cuba’s Memories of Underdevelopment, made in 1968 by Tomás Guttiérez Alea, was not distributed in the U.S. until 1973, which adds to its mystique as a relic of the Cuban revolution. It returns for an engagement at New York’s Film Forum this week. Set in 1961, it shows an intellectual (Sergio Corrieri) who watches his parents and wife depart for the States, while he remains behind in moral and political stasis. His position echoes the condescension of the bourgeois liberal art-movie audience. Alea was in tune with the glibness of the era, even repeating the flippant formal style and political critique of the French New Wave (including Daisy Granados’s flirtation as a proletarian gamine).
What looked radical then seems uncannily obvious — and instructive — today: It’s a randomly arranged series of études on Cuba’s class and race disparities and the still-haunting psychic violence of the revolution’s cultural schism. Film Forum audiences who expect ratification of their progressive reflexes will have to overlook Alea’s distance and self-criticism. The framing device that depicts unresolved black urban violence suggests a narrative lapse, yet it’s very different from the patronization of political media-makers today.
This week’s Golden Globes broadcast was not a political event no matter how many media-bubble writers promote the show’s liberal agenda. The Globes have become the West Coast version of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The movies are a pretext for desperate, attention-grabbing celebrity power plays. (The complicit media’s coverage of Hollywood’s overpaid, group-think employees keeps the public ignorant of how ideology works.)
The Globes have become the West Coast version of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
The Globes show confirms that the culture industry, as Theodore Adorno named it, is run by the least-principled people on earth. What they offer to the public as “entertainment” is sheer mindlessness. Celebrities dressed in black, as if in mourning, yet no one anxiously awaiting her prize was sad. These dress-dummies are the source of our culture’s ethical decline. And the pitiful movies being honored don’t even matter. (Few people have seen them.) We are being made to normalize our own abuse while feigning admiration of millionaire hustlers.
Consider this: The Hollywood Foreign Press Association sponsors the Globes as a last-ditch effort for its groveling correspondents from other countries (ignoble immigrants) to receive film-industry acceptance. Back-scratching = butt-kissing. As toadies, the HFPA sets Hollywood’s sycophantic low bar; its awards show is a way for it to gain notice from America’s Oscar-primed mainstream media. The West Coast’s desperation, like East Coast media’s liberalism, is biased and untrustworthy. (Who remembers when the FCC temporarily prohibited the Globes’ network broadcast because of its dishonest practices?) The Globes are not consciously political, but the show trains us to accept industry and political corruption along with lousy, big-budget movies. You decide which is worse.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.