The thought of sitting through the first film ever directed (as well as written) by Aaron Sorkin was not high on my list of priorities. While Sorkin is the author of A Few Good Men, The Social Network and The West Wing, to name a few, he also penned Danny Boyle’s hit and miss Steve Jobs and can, on occasion, craft dialogue that’s overly showy and improbably wordy. Sorkin’s work can be exceptionally smart but sometimes sounds like smarty-pants, Thesaurus-enhanced prose. I walked into his 140-minute Molly’s Game expecting a dry, wordy poker movie. Sometimes, it’s nice to be wrong.
Jessica Chastain stars as Molly Bloom, the former Olympic ski hopeful whose career took an altogether surprising turn in a different direction. While hired as a secretary to a shady businessman, Bloom managed a high stakes poker game with famous clientele. After learning the ropes, she breaks away from her employer and manages the poker games herself, creating a controlled environment that caters to the ego, fantasies and needs of the men who play in her games. Once the operation goes sour, Bloom seeks the help of a reluctant lawyer (played by Idris Elba). The case building against Bloom not only addressed the legalities of her gambling den but also the presence of Russian mobsters.
Sorkin’s directorial debut positively crackles and not just on the dialogue level. His work behind the camera is playful and positively antsy. The editing in this film is incredible, starting from the tour de force opening sequence and into the ongoing juxtaposition of Bloom’s seeking legal representation and flashbacks of how she built her poker empire. Sorkin demonstrates an energetic, propulsive visual storytelling that is reminiscent of David Fincher or Oliver Stone at their most caffeinated.
As an adaptation of Bloom’s book, Sorkin explores how a woman can successfully control her destiny, maintain her dignity and still struggle in a work environment dominated by men. While Bloom creates an atmosphere that suggests sex and glamour, she gradually realizes how her business is exploiting every facet of her.
Chastain took on a similar role in last year’s Miss Sloane, playing an icy, no-nonsense lobbyist whose career-first drive led her to overlook some crucial character and ethical flaws. Miss Sloane provided Chastain with a powerful role but the film stumbled. Here, Bloom is another prickly, intimidating character but Chastain infuses her with humanity and lived-in grit. In a brief but already remarkable film career full of impressive highlights, Chastain’s work here is incredible. If she’s somehow able to find more strong roles like this and stay away from nonsense like The Huntsman: Winter’s War, her film career could go on for decades.
Elba has been wonderful in practically everything he’s appeared in and it’s a joy to see him dig into such a fine role here. His scenes with Chastain have real snap but he matches her in finding the tender heart of his intelligent, compassionate character. There are also juicy supporting turns for Chris O’Dowd, Michael Cera and Kevin Costner (who delivers his finest work in some time).
Molly’s Game is a long film, I have no idea how Sorkin could have shortened it and wouldn’t want to see anything trimmed anyway. Once we get to the courtroom, I feared the film would start to drag. But in yet another surprise, this sequence is brief and features a nice supporting bit for Graham Greene as a judge.
Molly’s Game is a collection of great performances, a prime example of how to tell a rich, eventful story and a showcase for a first time director. At the very least, it surpasses Rounders as a new poker picture classic, rivaling even The Sting. It’s that entertaining, as well as funny and involving enough to entice audiences who have no clue what beats a straight flush.