I don't know what took Aaron Sorkin so long to carry his crackling dialogue skills to the director's chair and take charge of the entire process. Whatever the reason, viewers learn right away in Molly's Game -- the remarkable story of Molly Bloom, former world-class skier turned poker entrepreneur -- that it was worth the wait.
Sorkin also wrote the screenplay for Molly's Game based on Bloom's book. I have to admit that I'm not always a fan of the Sorkin method, in which each character seems too clever by half, rendering his or her interactions completely abnormal. Nobody's that smart and quick-witted all the time, are they?
While Sorkin's dialogue sparkled much of the time in The West Wing, I was not part of the crowd that bought into Newsroom. And at the risk of losing my man card, I consider A Few Good Men to have a few good moments, but beyond "You can't handle the truth," I'm not one who can recite the Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise lines in play-by-play fashion. But Sorkin's dialogue in The Social Network was fantastic (it makes sense that Harvard kids inventing Facebook had brains) and, for similar reasons, his Steve Jobs screenplay was a superb construction.
Jessica Chastain narrates the film as Bloom, confused as to why the FBI has not only arrested her but has taken all of her money after she's spent years running poker games she had been advised were "mostly legal."
Bloom's story would have been compelling in the hands of an average screenwriter. Instead, Sorkin elevates it to one of the year's best as Chastain and Idris Elba, who plays her new lawyer, make every moment of their screen time together memorable.
After just missing the Olympics due to an injury that opens the film, Bloom has the LSAT score to settle into the law school of her choice but chooses instead to spend some time finding herself in the Los Angeles sunshine. Rather quickly, the sunshine grows dark and she finds herself working for tips (the $1,000 variety) running private Texas Hold 'Em poker games that cater to the L.A. elite.
If you're a poker fan, the high-stakes scenes and Chastain's narration, which capture the players and their strategies (or sometimes the lack thereof), keep things sizzling along.
Michael Cera, playing an unnamed Hollywood actor whom everyone wants to meet at the poker table, has never had a role quite like this one, and Sorkin's dialogue is every actor's best friend. The film is filled with exceptional small performances from the men at the poker table -- particularly the Irish actor Chris O'Dowd (Bridesmaids) and Bill Camp (The Night Of). It would be crazy to say Kevin Costner, playing Bloom's predictably overbearing father, steals the show. He doesn't do that, but he gets to make one hell of a turn late in the film that brings her tale full circle.
Ultimately, Elba produces the best five minutes in the film when he stands up for his client in front of the prosecutors and details the insanity of making her the FBI's target just because Russian mobsters showed up (and beat her up) when she moved her games to New York.
Molly provides a great character, one who's on-screen or narrating practically every shot as the story unfolds. Chastain already has received a Golden Globe nomination for best actress, and while it's going to be a challenging field with Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Michelle Williams (All the Money in the World) and Meryl Streep (The Post), Chastain wholly deserves a spot alongside this crew.
There's a Scorsese or, more accurately, a David O. Russell-American Hustle feel to the proceedings as Molly's Game keeps us captive at the poker table from start to finish. We can only hope that Sorkin gives directing a second chance.
MOLLY'S GAME (A-)
R (for language, drug content and some violence). 140 minutes. In wide release.