With the exception of David Fincher’s The Social Network and possibly Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, few of Aaron Sorkin’s scripts have been paired with filmmaking that matches the energy of his writing.
For his directorial debut Molly’s Game, Sorkin gives his adaptation of Molly Bloom’s memoir the stylistic jolt his meticulously crafted monologues and witty banter deserve, establishing himself as a filmmaker to watch in the process.
Bolstered by another great Jessica Chastain performance in the titular role, it’s also the first poker film to help viewers understand the game and make them feel capable of playing it once the credits roll.
In Los Angeles after a failed attempt to make the U.S. Olympic freestyle skiing team, Molly briskly yet thoroughly recounts learning the rules of poker while assisting her demanding boss Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) at his weekly game — and that education is passed on to the viewer in entertaining fashion.
By comparison, top genre peers like Rounders and The Cincinnati Kid primarily focus on characters and the tension of big games, but Molly’s Game channels both within a larger context while still subtly informing the audience on the game's basics and quirks.
The generous ensemble of fun players to sit at her table helps the effort immensely. Michael Cera does an excellent Tobey Maguire impersonation (or is it Leonardo DiCaprio? Or Ben Affleck) as “Player X” and gels well with uninformed “Bad” Brad (Brian d'Arcy James) and blue collar all-star Harlan Eustice (Bill Camp) while alcoholic Douglas Downey (Chris O’Dowd) exists in his own volatile tangent.
Smoothly tied in with this chronological arc of her professional rise are flashbacks to painful showdowns with her adversarial father/skiing coach Larry (Kevin Costner) and a “present day” examination of all of the above — and her criminal indictment by the U.S. government — with potential lawyer Charlie Jaffey.
Played by Idris Elba, making the most of a film role finally worthy of his skills, the attorney has charisma to spare and his “box of Wheaties” speech is an instant Sorkin greatest hit thanks to it being delivered by one of the most gifted actors to interpret his writing.
Back in the fertile depositions of The Social Network and the courtrooms of A Few Good Men, it’s one of several engaging speeches with a tendency to circle back and readdress an initial point, deeply thrilling in the process.
But while such high-wire verbal dexterity is expected of Sorkin, his visual command and ability to draw masterful turns from his cast suggest a close eye has been paid to the directorial process over the past 25 years.
Deftly working in fun meta-commentary about “creative differences” with other offers to turn Molly’s story into a film and tastefully handling a moment of assault that's difficult to watch but necessary to convey the dangers she faces, Sorkin keeps his film moving for nearly 140 minutes, achieving a marvel that feels far shorter than that total.
Grade: A. Rated R. Now playing at Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: STX Entertainment)