Molly’s Game

We all know Aaron Sorkin can write. The one-man zeitgeist behind The West Wing, The Social Network, Moneyball, The Newsroom and more, his confrontational style blends skill, smartness and, particularly, showiness in a way that leaves no question about his talent. But can he direct? Having now watched his directorial debut twice, I am still not entirely sure that he can.

Most certainly he can put together a slickly entertaining story: Molly’s Game, based on the autobiography of disgraced “poker princess” Molly Bloom, rattles along nicely. He can offer us a privileged vantage point from which to gaze into the closed world of the high-stakes poker games that Bloom runs. He can most certainly tell a story. But this is a story that is told primarily with words rather than pictures. This is film-making that is almost slavishly in service of the screenplay. It’s essentially a display cabinet for Sorkin’s dialogue. There is barely a shot or a cut that isn’t dictated by Molly’s silky narration. Cinema is, or should be, a visual medium. At times, it almost feels as though you could watch the film with your eyes closed and not miss out on much of its meaning.

But if Sorkin is perhaps a little too in thrall to his own writing, that doesn’t change the fact that the writing is first rate. At his best he seems like the natural heir to the crackling screwball sensibility that powered 1940s classics such as His Girl Friday and The Lady Eve. Not so much in terms of comedy – although the film bristles with wit, it is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. But the screwball influence is present in the breakneck pacing of the line delivery, the intellectual cut and parry, and the brilliant female protagonist who runs rings around most of the men in the film. Like Rosalind Russell’s reporter Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, Molly is a fiercely ambitious woman who has carved her place, with biting charm and sharp fingernails, in a man’s world. Like Barbara Stanwyck’s card-sharp con artist Jean Harrington in The Lady Eve, she has found a way to profit from the weaknesses of others. In the central role, Jessica Chastain is, quite simply, phenomenal.If the screenwriting takes the starring role in this film, that’s only because so much of it is delivered by Chastain. She can take a line which is so written that you can subliminally hear Sorkin’s fingers tapping on his keyboard, and deploy it with such confidence and authority that we don’t even think to question its credibility.Molly Bloom is pretty much an archetypal Chastain role. She’s a human smart bomb who uses her intelligence as a weapon. High achieving doesn’t even come near the stellar ambitions that she harbours. Formerly a freestyle skier who hoped to compete at the Olympics, Bloom is driven to succeed. Her introduction to the world of high-stakes private poker games comes through her employer, a boorish bully of a Hollywood film producer who criticises her “ugly dress, ugly shoes”. She quickly realises that to make it in this world of spoilt super-rich boys and their ruinously expensive games, she needs to brand herself as the ultimate unattainable luxury item. With a face which is all hard angles, like the facets of a diamond, and hair with the shine of a jaguar’s pelt, Molly looks like money.

Sorkin’s main skill as a director is that he is able to negotiate the complex structure of the narrative and keep all the juggled story elements aloft. We see Molly’s life through flashbacks, both to her childhood (Kevin Costner makes a forceful impression as Molly’s overbearing father) and to her days running the most exclusive poker games in town, first in Los Angeles and later in New York. Meanwhile, exposition is deftly delivered through Molly’s meetings with her attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who is representing her in the court case which is the result of an FBI investigation.

And these are the moments in which the film fully ignites. Elba is as good as I have ever seen him. Jaffey has a peppery impatience, which makes him a perfect foil for Molly’s quicksilver intellect. Their sparking, firecracker scenes together are so deliciously bracing, you rather wish there were more of them. The thrill of watching two actors at the absolute top of their game is Sorkin’s winning card.Aaron Sorkin is to writing what Meryl Streep is to acting – one of a few screenwriters who is visible and renowned enough that he’s automatically a player in the awards season conversation whenever he gets a new movie made. And just in time for the end of the year, here comes Molly’s Game.

As with his recently nominated scripts The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs, his directorial debut is also based on the exploits of a real life figure. Adapting the memoir of the same name, Molly’s Game is about “self proclaimed Poker Princess” Molly Bloom, who became the subject of tabloid infamy a few years ago, when she was outed as the brains behind a prestigious underground poker empire frequented by celebrities, CEOs and mobsters.

Jessica Chastain plays the title character across 12 years of her lie, from the fluke accident that flummoxed her teenage ambitions as an Olympic skier, to the FBI sting operation in which she’s arrested for profiting from illegal gambling. That’s just the first ten minutes, and the film then moves elliptically between her rise in the world of high-stakes poker and her attempts to keep herself out of prison with the help of scrupulous former prosecutor Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba).

You can see what attracted Sorkin to this particular story, and his long-time fans will be able to spot his handiwork a mile away. It’s a sharp and snappy drama, based on a true story and structured around legal depositions and witty banter between intelligent characters. But whether you love or hate his tropes, he’s really firing on all cylinders here for his first directorial effort.

In terms of his previous filmography, it’s closer to Moneyball and, surprisingly, to the mischievous approach of Charlie Wilson’s War than it is to his two big tech biopics. Molly is no Zuckerberg or Jobs, and her self-conscious narration of events, the kind of storytelling device that can so easily have gone wrong, illuminates the drama without lapsing into self-parody.

By that token, it’s easy to see what attracted Chastain to the film too. Her commitment to great female lead roles has already seen her in the distinctly Sorkin-y Miss Sloane, which arrived in UK cinemas earlier this year, and as good as that film was, there’s no mistaking the real thing here – no one else working today cranks up the dialogue RPM to screwball levels like Sorkin does.

But there’s no similarity between those two title characters, and Chastain is endlessly watchable as someone who is alternately either determinedly making her way in a world that is demonstrably dominated by men, or realising that she’s gotten in over her head in a very different way throughout the film.

Elba is on reliable form too as the prosecutor who’s disarmed by his client’s lack of malice, and endlessly frustrated by her moral stance, keeping her word and protecting her clients even when offered an attractive plea deal as an alternative to prison. They spark off each other quite well, particularly as the film goes on, ensuring that the drama never slows when it returns to Charlie’s office in the present.

You don’t have to know your way around a game of poker either, in part due to Molly’s narration of what it means when a player loses, rather than fixating on how they lose. It’s not Casino Royale, but Sorkin does well to get you invested in watching other people play cards, deftly sketching Molly’s regulars as luckless, cautious and Chris O’Dowd and then watching them until they’re turned around. Yes, even Chris O’Dowd.

Names are changed to protect the rich and famous (who apparently weren’t interested in portraying themselves for some reason), with Michael Cera giving a shark-like turn as Hollywood actor Player X and Stranger Things’ Joe Keery, in full Steve Harrington pomp, as an immature trust fund kid. Although the identities of some characters are a matter of public record from the memoir that inspired the movie (at one point, Molly has cause to get back at Player X and I wondered if it would turn out that she wrote a draft of Spider-Man 3), the film wisely focuses on Molly’s arc rather than the scurrilous details.

Elsewhere, there’s some standout work from Kevin Costner as Molly’s father, a psychology professor who instils a ferocious determination in her through both his athletic training of her, and his harsh brand of parenting. But anyone stung by the shockingly laissez-faire attitude of his Jonathan Kent in the DC movies will welcome his dad work here, for when the film inevitably shifts into longer character-defining monologues towards the end, his big moment is one of the highlights. No horses were anecdotally drowned in the making of this picture.

For fans of Sorkin, its 140 minutes flies by more breezily than they have any right to, but if you’re even a little exasperated with his self-satisfied style, this is especially Sorkin-y stuff. Nevertheless, Molly’s Game is an accessible and admiring portrait that plays for and gets more nuance out of its central character than a mere tabloid curiosity, making one of the more entertaining grown-up movies of the season.