Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, “Molly’s Game,” is a slick and breezily entertaining example of all the ways the Oscar-winning writer is great and a few of the ways he’s not.
Even clocking in at an excessive 140 minutes, this fact-based poker drama moves fast and goes down smoothly.
I’d feared that Sorkin directing one of his own scripts without a collaborator would result in self-indulgent, sanctimonious dreck. My fear was unfounded. This is mostly prime, vintage Sorkin — a dialogue-driven throwback that deals the winning hand of a compelling premise and a tremendous performance.
Jessica Chastain is always good, but she’s probably never been as good as she is here. The actress plays Molly Bloom, the so-called “poker princess” who ran high-stakes, celebrity-filled games in L.A. and New York City in the ’00s before being arrested by the FBI.
Sorkin based the movie on Bloom’s memoir of the same name and collaborated with her to write the screenplay. Bloom’s book is, in part, a dishy tell-all that offers up juicy details about many of the celebs who played in Molly’s games: Alex Rodriguez, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and the Olsen twins. But with the exception of the weaselly “Player X” (a stand-in for Tobey Maguire, here played by Michael Cera), “Molly’s Game” is less interested in Hollywood gossip than it is in Molly herself.
Bloom was a world-class skier before she landed in the world of underground poker, her athletic career driven by her strict and demanding father (played by Kevin Costner). Bloom’s strained relationship with her father accounts for the most tiresome territory of “Molly’s Game,” with Sorkin going back to the well of daddy issues as character motivation (a device he’s overused in much of his work).
As he did with “The Social Network,” Sorkin layers “Molly’s Game” with multiple concurrently running timelines. The film begins with Molly’s arrest and then lets us know what brought her to this point.
She explains herself to her attorney, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), a fictional character who serves as Molly’s partner in verbal sparring and sexual tension. You don’t cast two of the planet’s sexiest people, after all, if you’re not going to have them flirt with each other.
Working with three editors, Sorkin fluently assembles several strong sequences around these Chastain/Elba tête-à-têtes.
Though the film is wall-to-wall with poker, “Molly’s Game” isn’t really a poker movie. It’s more of a movie about an entrepreneur in hostile territory. Molly disrupts a male-dominated workplace, using her tough intelligence to run a successful business in the face of a whole lotta toxic testosterone.
The movie works because Chastain and Sorkin’s portrayal of Molly is steely but never ruthless. She has compassion for the losers who end up at her tables — like the hedge fund manager who is appallingly bad at poker or the veteran player (Bill Camp, in a small but memorable role) who takes a wrong turn and ends up over $1 million in debt.
Molly (at least the Molly depicted in “Molly’s Game”) is a good person. And if Sorkin oversells her goodness a bit in the film’s final stretch, you can’t blame him for falling in love with a character he’s trying to make us fall in love with, too.
A few bad hands aside, “Molly’s Game” typically rides high on its torrent of talk. And Chastain has command of Sorkin’s language like few actors before her.
She’s always talking and talking beautifully. About poker, skiing, the justice system, Russian mobsters, male ego, tabloid journalism. She speaks through a Scorsese-esque voiceover, in flashbacks with Costner, in flash-forwards with Elba, to the players who frequent the high-stakes house of cards she’s built for herself.
“Molly’s Game” might fall short of being a great film, but it is an extremely pleasurable one — a lucky case of a filmmaker and an actress playing to their strongest suits.
* * *
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Bill Camp, Brian d’Arcy James
Rating: R for language, drug content and some violence
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Theaters: Alamo, Aksarben, Bluffs 17, Majestic, Oakview, Twin Creek, Village Pointe, Westroads