Marking the feature directorial debut of celebrated scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, Molly's Game is another slick, smart piece of work that the man has attached his name to, and it also happens to give Jessica Chastain a great role that doesn't rely on her being defined just by her seriousness and determination (admirable qualities, but not the only qualities I want to see in most performances).
Chastain plays Molly Bloom, a young woman who had a career in professional skiing ended by a freak accident on the slope. Which is the start of a chain of events that leads to her eventually running some major private poker games with very high stakes. Which would all be well and good if she didn't also end up welcoming players with ties to the Russian mob, and having to . . . wiggle herself into a position of illegality to cover some of the higher pots.
If I was ever going to be a sportsman then it would involve me learning how to get better at poker. Because it's the right level of physical activity for me, I like to feel as if I have a chance of winning, and it's just fun. It's also surprisingly cinematic, with many filmed games showing the building tension and how characters react differently to it. This works in Aaron Sorkin's favour, and he structures everything perfectly to reveal more about the main characters, tease out backstory, and lead viewers towards a finale that you don't think will prove satisfying, until it does. And it really does.
The dialogue is as good as you would expect, with the best exchanges being had between Chastain and Idris Elba (playing her lawyer), but also some great lines reserved for her infrequent conversations with Kevin Costner (her father). A lot of the lines sound cool and clever, but there are just as many that show Sorkin's knack for getting to the heart of a character or situation with just one or two sentences.
Chastain is excellent in the lead role, always cool and running through the odds even as things look to be overwhelming her. It's the kind of role she loves to sink her teeth into, with just a bit more detailing her and there to make her feel more human and rounded than she has been in some of her previous performances. Elba is an equally assured character, although he is at times worn down and frustrated by the stance that his high-profile client takes during her defence. Costner gives another great supporting performance that adds to the impressive list he has been building up over the past few years (but I may be biased, having always been a fan). Michael Cera, Chris O'Dowd, and Jeremy Strong are all good as various important figures in the journey that Molly makes to her position as poker game queen, with Cera and Strong both particularly good when angrily trying to assert dominance over a woman who knows she has to stay one step ahead of them. And there are a number of solid supporting turns from people Sorkin picked for their poker skills, lending the gaming scenes an air of authenticity some other films on this subject might lack.
It's easy to see why this appealed to Sorkin, and I am happy to say that he does well in the director's chair. Jargon is explained, dynamics are always made clear, memorable characters move in and out of the narrative, and Chastain looms large in every scene. Molly is never painted as an angel, although we only have her word for her personal code of conduct, but her bad decisions (some of them head-smackingly bad) are given as much attention as her successes.
Entertaining, gripping at times, aimed at adults, and doesn't often feel as if it is pandering to the audience. This might not be a full house for Sorkin, but it's enough for him to win the pot and walk away with a profit.
There's a disc you can order here.
And Americans can order the Blu ray here.