Smart, speedy and snappy is the writing of Aaron Sorkin, who proves uneven behind the camera with his directorial debut, “Molly’s Game.”
But Sorkin’s trademark pervasive intelligence and Jessica Chastain’s sharp lead performance make this movie, which profiles poker maven Molly Bloom, an enjoyable wild ride.
Like most Sorkin projects, the film, which Sorkin adapted from Bloom’s memoir, contains rapidly delivered dialogue, long monologues and one-liners that don’t all shine. It differs from other Sorkin-scripted biopics — “The Social Network,” “Steve Jobs,” “Moneyball” — in that its protagonist is female and hasn’t changed the world or a major sport with her achievements.
Chastain plays Molly from age 20 or so to 35. In an opening monologue, Molly describes how a freak accident destroyed her Olympic-skier aspirations and establishes herself as an unsinkable survivor.
Molly leaves Colorado for California, where she begins working for a man (Jeremy Strong) who runs a backroom poker game whose players include Hollywood biggies.
She acquires a keen knowledge of high-stakes poker and soon is hosting her own games in Los Angeles and then New York.
For years, Molly thrives. Eventually, a pill addiction and sheer exhaustion cause her to act carelessly: Molly allows some wealthy Russians, unaware that they are mobsters, to play at her tables.
In 2013, the FBI arrests Molly in a racketeering case.
Sorkin alternates between Molly’s poker career and Molly’s post-arrest legal battle. The latter features defense attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), a man with scruples who initially thinks Molly has none. When Molly refuses to release information that could destroy individual lives — a stance that could send her to jail — Charlie begins admiring her.
The film suffers from too much voice-over. We hear Molly describe what it feels like to be running a glamorous, successful, largely legal gambling enterprise, but those feelings aren’t portrayed in depth on the screen.
Compared to Sorkin’s previously mentioned other screenplays — films directed by David Fincher, Bennett Miller and an undervalued Danny Boyle — this film offers no real view inside its extraordinary protagonist’s mind.
Still, intelligence is a rare asset in movies today, and Sorkin merits applause for including it amply. His wit and way with language, which includes poker lingo here, give the film a distinct personality.
This is also a Jessica Chastain film, and, on that positive note, the actress, again, excels as a dynamic, driven, smartest-person-in-the-room who demonstrates that pride and integrity mean more than power or money
Elba is solid with little to do other than deliver one powerful speech.
Kevin Costner, playing Molly’s father, does what he can with a heartstring role.
Supporting performances include fine turns from Michael Cera, as a power-wielding movie star, and Brian D’Arcy James as a terrible poker player.
Chris O’Dowd is wonderful as a drunken Irish player who develops a crush on Molly Blooom; she tells him he’s confused her with the James Joyce character.
Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin
Running time 2 hours, 20 minutes