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.
Molly’s Game is in UK cinemas from January 1st.