Reel Dad: Molly’s Game – Voice-over wears thin

Since movies started to talk about 90 years ago, filmmakers have relied on voice-over to share parts of a narrative that traditional dialogue doesn’t cover. Such commentaries can reveal what a character can’t otherwise say, such as William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, or provide a voice to a someone who can’t speak, such as Glenn Close in Reversal of Fortune. When effectively used, voice-over can enhance; when less effective, it can annoy.

Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game, features the most distracting use of voice-over since Tobey Maguire tried to channel F. Scott Fitzgerald in the remake of The Great Gatsby a few years ago. Sorkin, best known for his rapid-fire dialogue on television in The West Wing and on film in The Social Network, surprises this time with a lack of narrative or character development. Because the movie never lets us know what it’s trying to accomplish, the voice- over feels like a last-minute attempt to make sense of it all. Although Sorkin’s work secured an Oscar nomination, his honored screenplay relies on the recorded voice to compensate for what his actual voices fail to deliver.

Sorkin’s story chronicles the career of Molly Bloom, an ambitious lady who gets rich running gambling events for high-profile players. As with most films about a rise and fall, this one begins with an under-valued Bloom frustrated at her limited options in the workforce. Soon — with the help of Sorkin’s voice-over — we learn how plucky she can be when she identifies an opportunity to move from assisting a gambling promoter to becoming one herself. Fortune soon arrives at her door, which is welcome, along with fame, which is not. But Molly is a resourceful lady and, as she begins to navigate her fall, she and her voice over commentary resolve to learn from the lessons she experiences.

The problem with Sorkin’s approach — in addition to all the voice-over — is how he reveals everything about Molly in the early moments. We learn, too soon, all the bad things she has to go through before we connect to her reasons to pursue the good things. Because Sorkin plays his cards too soon, no pun intended, he has nothing to show later on, leaving Chastain alone on screen impersonating a character with the help of that ever-present voice over. The result is a film that feels longer than its extended two-hour, 20-minute running time, simply because so little happens. And this story, and this character, need things to happen.

What a disappointment. In a year filled with dynamic performances from women playing rich characters, the role of Molly should offer any performer the chance to shine. But actors need words to build portrayals. While Sorkin gives Jessica Chastain a lot of words, most of them simply progress the narrative; they don’t tell us much about the lady. And Chastain — so effective on screen when given the right words — looks lost in a performance that relies on her natural charisma to fill in the holes. And her voice.

Film Nutritional Value: Molly’s Game

Content: Medium. Even an excessive amount of voice-over has a hard time filling all the holes in the narrative from Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.

Entertainment: Medium. Despite Jessica Chastain’s appealing presence on screen, the film fails to ring true because Sorkin doesn’t give the actress enough of a character to play.

Message: Low. Other than “it shouldn’t pay to cheat” the movie doesn’t leave us with that much to chew on.

Relevance: Low. Any opportunity to get out of the cold is worthwhile as is any visit to the movies. But I’d skip this one.

Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. Any film that shows that crime doesn’t pay can prompt healthy discussion. Even when the movie disappoints.

2-1/2 Popcorn Buckets. Molly’s Game is rated R for language, drug content and some violence. The film runs two hours, 20 minutes.

Moneyball: Aaron Sorkin hits a home run

By Mark Schumann

The Reel Dad

Of all the sports that Hollywood cooks into movies, baseball may be the most overdone. For every Field of Dreams and Eight Men Out we savor, we endure overheated imitations like For Love of the Game or Angels in the Infield. And, because the menu for making a baseball film is so familiar, the genre cries for creative reinvention.

Aaron Sorkin, fresh from winning an Oscar for writing The Social Network, brought his fondness for rapid-fire dialogue to an unlikely topic, what may or may not happen behind the scenes in major league baseball. The result is Sorkin at his best, a thorough, compelling and captivating story about a man trying to make the most of the time left in his professional pursuits. It’s quite a different outcome than how Sorkin disappoints with Molly’s Game.

Moneyball is actually less about the sport than a character study of a man trying to overcome his demons. This man could be in any business, facing any crisis that resurrects fears of failure from his youth. While his world sits inside a baseball stadium offers the visuals we recognize, his challenge is universal. Each of us, at some point, must confront the remnants of our disappointments. For this man, the baggage he carries happens to include a baseball bat.

Billy Beane, once a promising young baseball player, finds himself, in middle age, as the disappointed general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Because of the economics of the sport in the early 2000s, his team cannot afford the talent of other, richer teams. So he lets himself, and his team, savor minor victories that feed their compromised ambitions.

He wants more. And Billy knows that more will only come if he finds a new way to compete. He implements a mathematical theory that focuses on the probabilities of runs — and the mix of players to achieve specific thresholds — rather than choose the best players the payroll will permit. Billy befriends a young Harvard graduate to put the theory to work as a partner in his dream to reinvent his team and the sport.

Moneyball carefully avoids baseball movie clichés — even in classic sequences of the team fighting to win important games — to deliver a fascinating portrait that any career-focused person over age 40 will recognize. Billy isn’t simply trying to win one more game; he wants to leave a legacy of change that will be remembered long after his working days end. Fueled by his own disappointments as a baseball player, he wants to be remembered as someone with the courage and persistence to reinvent a sport and himself. By placing the narrative of the man into the familiar framework of a baseball film, director Bennett Miller uses the conventions we recognize to address the issues we may overlook. Because love for the game is a part of every moment, Miller doesn’t have to hit us over the head with baseball imagery. Instead he focuses on the man.

The magic of Moneyball has as much to do with what it avoids as what it includes. The tight script by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian never resorts to the phrases we have heard in countless baseball films; likewise Bennett Miller never reaches for the typical moments. In Moneyball, no baseballs hit the lights when the hero hits the home run; instead, the lights explode inside the head and heart. And that makes this baseball game a winner in every inning.

Moneyball, from 2011, is Rated PG-13 for some strong language. The film runs 2 hours, 13 minutes. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor (Brad Pitt), Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill), Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Adapted Screenplay. It is available for online streaming.

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