Aaron Sorkin brings all his signature flourishes as a writer -- the rapid-fire, walk-and-talk banter, the moralistic protagonists, and impassioned speeches -- to his directorial debut, the tremendously entertaining, true-life poker drama "Molly's Game."
Jessica Chastain stars as Molly Bloom, a one-time Olympic-hopeful skier who, after an injury brought her career to an unexpected end, reinvented herself as the runner of one of the world's most exclusive high-stakes underground poker games. Putting her law school plans on hold, she found herself riding high as the game attracted rich and powerful players from the worlds of show business, finance, and politics. She earned a fortune and had quite a life until her games also gained the attention of a few unsavory individuals, which led to drugs, the involvement of the Russian mob, and ultimately caused Molly to become the target of a massive FBI investigation.
It's an instantly absorbing story, well-told by Sorkin. With a crackling energy, the narrative jumps back and forth between scenes that allow us to see exactly how Molly's high-stakes gambling empire was born, and those following her arrest, as she works to convince lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to take on her case. Jaffey's baffled and frustrated by her refusal to give up any of her clients in exchange for a reduced sentence, but as the two become a team, he comes to admire the idealistic center that motivates her actions.
Chastain and Elba are supremely charismatic performers, and they're both terrific -- it's a ton of fun watching them deliver Sorkin's rat-a-tat banter. Happily, the film side-steps his tradition of problematic female characters: Molly is a force of nature, and Chastain's cool intelligence makes a perfect fit for Sorkin's hyper-verbal world.
While Chastain and Elba are the stars of the show, the film also finds time for a plethora of fun supporting turns from performers like Michael Cera, playing a malicious high-profile actor known as "Player X" (supposedly a stand-in for Tobey Maguire), Brian d'Arcy James, and Chris O'Dowd, who's a scene-stealer as a sympathetic sad-sack who might be more trouble than he's worth.
Sorkin acquits himself well as a first-time director. The film has a competent (if somewhat unremarkable) visual sense; it's not surprising that most of the film's stylistic flourishes are reserved for the words. It gains a fast-paced energy thanks to the zippy editing, which cuts to the rhythm of the dialogue and weaves in footage of whatever subject the characters are discussing, in a style that calls to mind Adam McKay's approach to "The Big Short."
Without a David Fincher or a Danny Boyle to rein in his usual impulses, Sorkin goes for broke on the heightened, stylized dialogue. It feels quintessentially Sorkin -- both for better and occasionally for worse -- but for the most part it all works. That is, all the way up until the film's nearly derailed by its misguided emotional climax. At that point we get a cringe-worthy scene in which Molly's demanding psychologist father (Kevin Costner) shows up for a heartfelt reunion and proceeds to psychoanalyze his daughter, explaining to Molly that her lifelong drive to succeed at any cost can be traced back to daddy issues.
It feels like Sorkin can't help but shoehorn in a scene where a man has to explain things to a woman -- even her own behavior. But up until that moment, the film is a riveting, wildly exciting ride, and it's undeniably satisfying to see Chastain's no-nonsense character put the powerful men around her in their places.
If you're not a fan of Sorkin's work, "Molly's Game" isn't likely to do much to change your tune. But on the other hand, if you get a kick out of his unique brand of storytelling, you're likely to be all in.