You wouldn’t have needed to know ahead of time that Aaron Sorkin wrote and directed Molly's Game, the new true story biopic about “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom. It’s obvious from the second it starts. No one has a stronger and more recognizable voice in Hollywood, and the opening, in which Molly describes her short-lived career as an almost Olympic skier with exhaustive and exacting detail while barely stopping to take a breath, has all the hallmarks.
This is not a man interested in change.
Jessica Chastain plays Bloom, whose career on the slopes was ended prematurely due to a horrifying crash during Olympic qualifying. Determined to shift to law school, Molly ends up out in LA as a personal assistant to a sleazeball (Jeremy Strong), who runs a poker game on the side for Hollywood’s moneyed elite. Molly is put in charge of running the game, and it’s there she meets Player X (Michael Cera), an uber-famous actor and poker grifter who works with her to start running her own game so she can reap more profits and have more control. But a high stakes underground gambling ring comes with plenty of danger, which finds Molly in more than her share of legal trouble. To extricate herself, she calls upon ethical lawyer and general stand-up guy Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) as the Feds seek to rope her into a larger racketeering charge even after she’s lost all her money and left that life behind her.
Clearly Sorkin feels most at home with a biopic these days, and the structure of Molly's Game is heavily inspired by his other biopics of recent memory. He tells the story in flashback with heavy narration from Chastain, with a healthy amount of jumps back to the present. It’s all centered around a court case, giving the narration an undeniably depositional vibe. Chastain takes to it well, affecting a monotone, uninterested air like the events of her remarkable life aren’t all that special. Elba’s got that Stringer Bell swagger down pat, commanding whatever room he strides into as he lays down the tough but realistic talk Molly needs to hear. Both acquit themselves well to the dialogue (and that’s no small feat for a Sorkin script) and they have a wonderful group of supporters (Cera, Brian D’Arcy-James, Kevin Costner, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp) to play off. Sure, some of the things Sorkin makes them say are more than a little on the nose (including an anecdote about Jesse Owens that’s right out of the Sports Night playbook, not to mention the words “Quo Vadimus” scrawled across the walls of the Cobra Club) but you take the bad with the good with Sorkin, and Molly's Game is pure Sorkin, uncut and unadulterated.
The big question, then, is how Sorkin would handle the director’s chair. He’s never directed anything before, and has comfortably relied on titans of screens large and small like Rob Reiner, Mike Nichols, David Fincher and Thomas Schlamme to bring his stories to life. There’s no question he picked up some techniques along the way, with pacey editing that matches the velocity of his script and a sharp camera eye of Charlotte Bruus Christensen framing the action with aplomb. Perhaps the best thing to say about Aaron Sorkin the director is you don’t really notice him that much. He isn’t boring, doing more than shot reverse shot coverage in his dialogue scenes, but he isn’t overly ostentatious either.
What he is, though, is unfettered. Those growing weary of Sorkin’s schtick need not apply. Without a director to rein him in, Molly's Game has all the good and bad that comes with it. There’s plenty of corn to go around: big speeches and pithy comebacks abound, but what makes him such an engaging screenwriter is just as prevalent here as it was in The Social Network. Molly Bloom’s life as brought to the screen here is an engrossing romp full of twists and turns, wonderfully played by a catty, confident Chastain, and Sorkin ably shepherds his vision to the screen as a first time director. There’s something missing here, as Molly's Game doesn’t have the staying power of the likes of The Social Network, Steve Jobs, Charlie Wilson's War or Moneyball, but there’s plenty to keep his fans coming back for more.