The true story of an Olympic-class skier (Jessica Chastain) who ran the world's most exclusive high-stakes poker game and became an FBI target in the process. Her players included movie stars, business titans and unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob.
Aaron Sorkin's most nominally known to audiences from The West Wing, a TV series so idealistic that when viewed through the prism of our current landscape, it's almost comical. Further back, you also had the excellent A Few Good Men, which saw a plucky trio of Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Kevin Pollack take on the unhinged Jack Nicholson in a military courtroom. More recently, Sorkin's work has deviated to more complex morality plays with the likes of Steve Jobs and The Social Network. With Molly's Game, it's the same thing - but it all still has Sorkin's shiny, bright dialogue and his directing on top of that.
The film opens with Jessica Chastain ably rattling off some statistics and calculations for chance in a skiing competition. As you'd expect, Chastain's character is forced off her chosen path and ends up in the somewhat murky but definitely alluring world of high-stakes poker, and finds that she has less of an affinity for the game and more of an understanding of the minds at work behind it. The film projects her as this all-seeing, all-knowing figure who's almost never out of words for something to say and can quickly wash away any kind of conflict with a quick reply - exactly like almost every Sorkin creation. The engine of the film comes from Chastain relaying her story to Idris Elba's high-powered and deeply moral lawyer, who's trying to understand whether or not she's done something illegal or was merely around shady people. It's an interesting choice for Elba, as he's done well out of playing complex characters - Luther, perhaps most notably - and here, he's playing a straight-edged lawyer who's just looking to do the right thing. Between these two leads, you have Kevin Costner floating through as Chastain's on-screen father, who acts as a sort of catalyst for Chastian's journey and rounds it off in the final act, and Michael Cera, who plays an unnamed real-life celebrity poker player who comes across like an actual sociopath.
It's tricky stuff to balance these performances and try wrangle Sorkin's dialogue, but the performances across the board are all strong - especially Chastain's, on which the whole film rests. While her character gives off this air of invincibility, it eventually begins to crack under the pressure and it's this journey - and eventual reveal of her vulnerability - that makes us connect with her. Too often, the character in Sorkin's work are so impossibly smart, morally upright or witty to take seriously, and while there's some of that issue here, it's lessened in part by the fact that the performances are so clearly defined and presented.
As a director, Sorkin manages to keep the pacing and editing up and doesn't necessarily luxuriate over any scene or moment with any kind of respect. What the film misses, to a certain degree, is keeping the whole game of poker accessible or understandable to players. There's more than a few scenes where Chastain's character, with the kind of intensity one would reserve for a nuclear code sequence, commentates over a game of poker and doesn't make any effort to include the precious few who don't play or understand poker. Still, it's a relatively small problem because, as previously mentioned, the performances guide you through it all. While there may be a few moments where Sorkin's clearly taking a leaf out of previous directors who've interpreted his work, Danny Boyle being one example in the early part of the film, he's able to translate his own words ably and without much fuss.
If there's a complaint to be made against Molly's Game, it's that it sometimes thinks it's far more smarter than it imagines. Sure, Jessica Chastain's character is a wily operator who knows her business and is able to work a room, but it doesn't necessarily make any of it seem like a terribly noble profession. Of course, maybe that's just what the intent is - to show that it's not in any way admirable to play this kind of game. As Michael Cera's Player X puts it, "I like to destroy people." For a writer who's made a career out of inspiring people, it's fascinating to see him go in the opposite direction with the same energy and wit.