In his feature directing debut, Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) gives a sharp visual context to the torrent of words his characters use to express themselves. Defining themselves is a trickier business, requiring actors who can fill the space between words – so it's lucky Molly's Game has Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba around. Some critics dismiss Sorkin as a blabbermouth who can't shut the fuck up. I see him as a voice for literacy in a Hollywood wilderness where communication in films rarely rises above a grin, a grunt or a tweet.
On TV, from The West Wing to The Newsroom, Sorkin trusts in dialogue with delicious elegance, acerbic wit and dramatic force. And he lets words rip like gunfire in the fact-based story of Molly Bloom (Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful as a skier who switched gears to run a high-stakes poker game ("the world's most exclusive, decadent man cave"). It brought in the celebrity elite, not to mention the Russian mob, to lose their shirts under her watchful eye. That is until the FBI busted up her lucrative business – ironically, thanks to the info in Bloom's memoir Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker.
As expected, Chastain is sensational as Molly, biting into Sorkin's script in real time and in voiceover, where the poker diva explains it all for you. Molly builds her business from the ground up, first in Los Angeles and then in Manhattan, holding her clients in line and using bon mots the way Cagney used bullets. She also sets off a few sparks with a lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), but stops short of romance. The actor gets one killer speech, but his legal eagle is basically there to help Molly when the feds refuse to give her a deal unless she names names. The lady never does, though her high-rollers reportedly included Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio. In the film, Michael Cera does a clever job eviscerating an A-lister who helped put Molly's game on the map. Brian d'Arcy James also scores as Bad Brad, a hedge-fund manager with a shocking lack of talent for the game. And keep an eye on the terrific Chris O'Dowd, as a poker client with a drinking problem who the hostess takes pity on – to her detriment.
Molly's Game bristles with fun zingers, electric energy and Sorkin's brand of verbal fireworks – all of which help enormously when the movie falters in fleshing out its characters. Still, in his first film with a female protagonist, the writer-director has hit on a timely theme: the tribulations of being a woman in a man's world. Sexual misconduct isn't the half of it. The Molly we see on screen can handle herself, though we never see her in an intimate relationship that involves sex, much less love. Sorkin shapes his movie as a morality tale, seeing the good in his hero being compromised by a corrupt system, even though she profits by encouraging the gambling addiction of her clients. And in the film's less persuasive second half, the man behind the camera errs in letting male characters presume to tell us what makes Molly tick. That's a job best left to Chastain, who proves as eloquent in silence as she does in speech. Sorkin provocatively lays his cards on the table. It's his actress, however, who deals audiences a winning hand.