‘Molly’s Game’ Doubles As A Map Of Aaron Sorkin’s Writing Tics

Senior Editor
12.27.17 18 Comments

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It’s hard to write about hating Aaron Sorkin, because, for the people who haven’t started to notice all his writing tics, or who have but don’t mind them, his movies and shows are still peppy and entertaining. I used to enjoy them too; I genuinely don’t relish the idea of ruining them for anyone. Sorkin’s a savant in certain ways, a master of “competence porn,” who does his best work writing about smart, hyper-articulate people who are very good at their jobs.

This is a perfectly understandable brand of escapism. We love to imagine that the people who run our institutions are smart and capable and principled, and Aaron Sorkin is great at selling that myth. At an even more basic level, we love watching our favorite actors deliver the kind of stirring speeches we wish real people would. His work is a layer cake of wish fulfillment, satisfying both philosophically and verbally, a kind of extended staircase wit delivered by our favorite talkers. He tends to do his best work writing for characters who naturally grandstand, like lawyers (A Few Good Men) and politicians (The West Wing or Charlie Wilson’s War).

He writes movies where people make words good, quickly, which makes them easy to watch, and allows him to speed through exposition at 1.75 speed — kind of like a truthy slam poem. The stories are slick, the action moves briskly, and the rapid-fire dialogue has the kind of repetitious, call-and-response cadence you find in a sermon, or an old rock song (just replace “UH HUH” and “AMEN” with “How’s it goin’ so far” and “YA THINK?!“).

The classic Sorkin scene is of a character parrying an antagonist with defensive, one or two word answers, getting increasingly agitated along the way, eventually building to a crescendo in which the dam holding back their true feelings finally bursts — as in “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” or “if you were the inventors of Facebook, you would’ve invented Facebook.” The Big Revelation usually silences the crowd, as if the guy just drained a three-pointer at a road game.

 

The smarmily delivered tautology (if Facebook… then Facebook) by the way, is another Sorkin favorite. (See also: “You know how I know they didn’t write it? Because if they’d written it they’d have written it,” among other examples).

Sorkin stories move and bounce, he makes dialogue into a sport — it’s exciting. The flip side of this is that stories where the protagonist always has something profound and/or snarky to say, an immediate comeback for anyone who would question them, is that they often seem profoundly smug. Watched back to back, Sorkin’s movies and shows feel a little like a montage of his compiled comebacks, Things I Wish I’d Said, Vol. VII. Aaron Sorkin’s narratives don’t have questions, they have answers. Where Michael Bay’s movies tend to divide the entirety of humanity into sluts and clowns, Sorkin’s seem to divide them into heroes and straw men, geniuses and rubes.

All fiction writers build an idealized world to some extent, but there are patterns in Sorkin-world, and a lot of them start to lose their charm the more you see them — the less they seem like individual story details and the more they start to feel like hallmarks of a worldview (part of why it’s hard to point them out without feeling like a killjoy — they’re fine if you don’t notice). Patterns like good-hearted philanderers, “strong women” who are still defined by their relationships with men, and narratives that resolve a little too easily around pop-psychologizing and Freudian daddy issues. To say nothing of (another Sorkinism) the constant references to books from 11th grade English and scorched earth conversational fragments.

It’s not so much that Aaron Sorkin repeats himself or that he has tics — anyone as prolific as Aaron Sorkin is inevitably going to repeat themselves (see Shane Black’s love of people jumping out of windows into pools or Quentin Tarantino’s penchant for the name “Toothpick Vic”). It’s that Sorkin’s tics all, and there’s really no other way to put this, make him seem like kind of an asshole. Even when he’s good, his work is suffused with a kind of pedantic self-satisfaction, a tone that says “I’m carefully explaining something so obvious to me that it shouldn’t need to be explained.” Sorkin-splaining, so to speak. As my old podcast co-host once described it, “I get the feeling the female lead in the rough draft of every Aaron Sorkin script is just named ‘My Ex-Wife.'”

The nadir of this tendency was probably The Newsroom, which was a period piece set 18-24 months or so before the present, which allowed Sorkin to both explain current events to us and then posit how history might’ve turned out differently if only the world had had a straight-talking dad like Jeff Daniels’ character to defend The Discourse. (Another factor working against Sorkin in The Newsroom was that great actor but mushy talker Jeff Daniels simply couldn’t sharply enunciate like a good Sorkin protagonist absolutely must.)

Sorkin’s latest, Molly’s Game, based on a memoir by Molly Bloom about how she ran a high-stakes poker game for Hollywood’s most powerful movers and shakers (and Tobey Maguire), is neither overtly political nor stars a heroic power dad. It stars Jessica Chastain, who seems like she’s been auditioning to play a Sorkin lead her entire career. (“I’m the motherf*cker who found this place, sir,” is possibly the greatest non-Sorkin Sorkin line of all time.) Even the book seems tailor-made for Sorkin, radiating with exactly the same kind of unexamined smarm. Despite that, it’s fast-paced, star-studded, and fascinating, if in a slightly nauseating way — again, perfect Sorkin.

It takes Sorkin less than five minutes to demolish the memoir and turn it into his ping pong room (to borrow a Sorkinism). Molly Bloom was a mogul skier, see, and the first scene is her Olympic trial moguls run, shot with swooping cameras in rapid-fire montage explained in rapid-fire voice-over narration by Bloom herself. Mostly she explains how hard it is (“the altitude is 8100 feet and the pitch is 52 degrees, the same as the sides of the great pyramids”), while weaving in tidbits about how exceptional she is (“I have a BA in political science from the University of Colorado, where I graduated summa cum laude with a 3.9 GPA”) complete with even more quantifiables (“the median LSAT score at Harvard Law School is 169. My score was 173.”).

It’s weird that Sorkin thinks he needs to prove that Molly Bloom is smart before we’ll care about her. Even Bloom’s occasionally tone-deaf memoir doesn’t begin this way, and for good reason: you’d never trust a narrator who opened a story with their GPA and LSAT scores. It gives the entire movie the subtext of a humblebrag: Here’s my story about how I ruled the poker world because I’m SO SMART and everyone wanted to sleep with me. The Sorkin treatment makes Molly Bloom sound a little like Louise Linton (aka Mrs. Steve Mnuchin) she of the “skinny white muzungu with long angel hair” memoir.

There’s a self-righteousness to Bloom’s memoir, but it’s subtext, something you can sort of sense is there but is never overt. Sorkin’s adaptation screams it at you from the first frames. In Bloom’s story, a little self-righteousness is somewhat justified, because she has to advocate for herself to make it in an especially misogynistic world. Sorkin does a fine job depicting that world, but he inevitably carves up his own protagonist, dissecting her until there’s nothing left but his own assumptions.

We first meet Bloom’s father, played by Kevin Costner, who we later learn is a Russian Jew during a pivotal moment (yeah okay sure whatever), in flashback, as Bloom’s demanding ski coach. After an unfortunate accident during an Olympic qualifying run, Molly retires from competitive skiing and decides to take a year off before law school and move to LA.

It’s there she becomes a cocktail waitress, and Sorkin’s smug, numbers-based takedown of bottle service is actually perfectly employed. And interestingly, it’s his own invention. Where Molly Bloom’s book simply talks about going to clubs like it’s a cool fun thing people do, Sorkin can’t help dissecting it, and it’s one notable area where this works to the movie’s advantage.

Bloom gets hired by one of her regulars, a brash, dickish Hollywood guy named Dean (Jeremy Strong) who promises to give her an “MBA in life.” It’s Dean, who likes to swear and throw bagels, who first tasks Molly with running his celebrity poker game in the basement of the “Cobra Lounge” (an extremely thinly veiled stand in for the Viper Room).

In Sorkin’s film, the story is told through a framing device (Sorkin’s invention), taking place in a sort of present, where Molly, post poker infamy, is fighting a court case to stay out of prison with the help of her lawyer, played by Idris Elba (doing a strange accent that sounds like maybe his Stringer Bell accent from The Wire got contaminated by his Nelson Mandela accent from Long Walk to Freedom). The Elba character is a Sorkin invention, and the way he reads Bloom’s memoir back to her, questioning certain parts — “this part where Dean calls them ‘poor people bagels,’ he didn’t say that, right? he called them n*gger bagels, didn’t he” — feels suspiciously like a stand-in for Sorkin himself. It’s more interesting to watch the movie knowing this, especially the part where Elba/Sorkin is making his teen daughter write a book report on The Crucible (did you guys get the allusion? It’s about a witch trial). It’s such a perfect Sorkin moveto write himself into the story in order to pedantically explain it (“This is a good book, Molly, but it’s not finished. Also, ‘verticality’ is not a word.”). Molly’s comebacks even give it a wisp of self deprecation.

Sorkin’s treatment of Molly’s antagonists, however, is… well, let’s call it “strange.” In the book, her boss, the Dean character (“Reardon,” in the book), is the assholiest of rich kid assholes, who calls Molly stupid for doing volunteer work and demands caviar to cure hangovers. He’s her abuser-turned-friend, and in the process of buying designer shoes and overpriced crap for his mistresses, Molly seems to get seduced by all that wonderful stuff.

Tobey Maguire, equally assholey, remains unredeemed. He’s a good player, poor tipper, and a generally cheap and a terrible loser, who once tried to get Molly to bark like a seal for a tip (not a spoiler, it’s not in the movie) and eventually steals her game out from under her. In the movie, Maguire is identified only as “Player X” (played wonderfully by Michael Cera), and it goes much easier on him. It shifts the role of chief antagonist to Dean (possibly for legal reasons?).

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