Chastain shines in Sorkin's poker drama
Molly's Game (15A, 140mins) - Four Stars
There's no room for stupid people in the scenarios of Aaron Sorkin. His work, which stretches back to The West Wing and includes such wordy films as Moneyball, Steve Jobs and The Social Network, always involves hectic, erudite conversations between fiercely competing clever-clogs, pissing contests over who is the more culturally and geopolitically informed. He's so good at writing that he tends to get away with it, and there's an underlying warmth to his dialogue that prevents it from becoming unattractively arid.
We know he can write, but in Molly's Game Sorkin makes his directing debut. His film is set in the weird world of high-stakes poker and based on the true story of Molly Bloom, a former competitive skier who became the operator of one of America's biggest private games. Jessica Chastain plays Molly, whom we first meet on a Rocky Mountain slope as she's about to make a mogul descent that could win her a place on the US Winter Olympic team.
Driven on by her relentlessly competitive father (Kevin Costner), Molly has been raised to believe that excellence is a given, failure not an option.
So when she slips on the slope and suffers a horrific fall, she doesn't initially know how to react. Her whole life, as she saw it, had been mapped out ahead of her: sporting success followed by a glittering legal career, but instead she winds up in traction, wondering what the hell to do next.
She rebels, moves to Hollywood, and winds up working for a deeply unpleasant hustler who runs an illegal poker game. Actors and other entertainment industry types gather at a prearranged venue to play at being card sharps and win and lose large sums of money they can comfortably afford not to care about.
Molly watches and learns, and before long figures out that she could make big money if she runs a game herself. So she strikes out on her own, rents a suite at a five-star hotel, and soon all the big players are coming to her poker nights.
When things turn nasty with one of the Hollywood players, she moves to New York and sets up an even more lucrative game there. But when Molly accidentally gets mixed up with the mob, she becomes the target of an FBI sting, is arrested and put on trial. A high-profile lawyer called Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) agrees to take her defence on for free, but Molly won't be an easy client, and refuses to reveal the names of her clients, even if it means her spending decades in jail.
Jessica Chastain plays Molly as a fiercely determined and dignified woman who, however dubious her profession, has her own unshakable moral code. Her relationship with the players is warm, almost motherly, and she sometimes intervenes when one of them embarks on a reckless gambling streak.
Sorkin is too good a writer to get bogged down in who has the royal flush, and uses character to dramatise the dangerous mixture of ego and adrenalin that fuels the card games which destroy lives.
The complications of Molly's story necessitate a voiceover, a device I normally hate but which works well enough here. As ever, in a Sorkin film, there's a lot of talking, and the writer/director takes his own sweet time telling this intriguing tale. Two hours and 20 minutes is longer than your average superhero yarn, but thanks to Sorkin's sparkling script and Chastain's intelligent acting, the time never drags.
Idris Elba is a worthy foil as her initially dubious lawyer, Kevin Costner delivers a nuanced turn as her domineering, obsessively competitive father, and Michael Cera and Chris O'Dowd play two very different card sharps, but this is Chastain's film.
Watching Molly's Game, it occurred to me how depressingly rare it is for a movie to be built around an empowered female protagonist: this one certainly is, and Jessica Chastain tackles a huge role wonderfully well. She's as luminous, charismatic and compelling as ever.