Aaron Sorkin became an auteur without ever having directed a film, with his rat-a-tat dialogue often imitated, never duplicated. With his directorial debut, “Molly’s Game,” Sorkin adapts Molly Bloom’s poker memoir into a fast-talking, free-wheeling vehicle for a powerhouse performance by Jessica Chastain.
Unfortunately, his strengths don’t yet extend to behind the camera.
Molly’s poker story is framed by a brutal ski accident during an unsuccessful bid for the Olympics, which illustrates her drive to succeed. So when Molly decides to put her mind to orchestrating the best underground poker game in Los Angeles, she will execute better than anyone ever has.
The narrative bounces around with abandon, from Molly’s childhood, to her rise and fall in Los Angeles and New York, to her legal proceedings several years later, after FBI agents have arrested her for a two-year-old crime to bring some shiny tabloid attention to their mob bust. Broke, she begs for help from a lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who reluctantly takes her on.
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As Charlie reads her memoir, he questions Molly about her wild tales of debauchery, movie stars and moguls winning and losing hundreds of thousands in a single night. She’s forthcoming but coy, because the only thing more important to Molly than money is her reputation.
Cash rules everything around Molly, who is like a savant when it comes to money. We don’t quite know what made her that way; Sorkin doesn’t flesh that out. In a third act scene, Molly’s therapist father (Kevin Costner) makes an attempt to dadsplain her psychology, but the film refuses to commit to an answer. We never know what the film is trying to say about Molly and how she came to find herself in this high-stakes business — carrying millions in debt, addicted to pills, on the wrong end of a mob enforcer’s fist.
While the script crackles and excites, the film itself is uncinematic — the style is flat, cutting methodically back and forth between camera setups that are rooted in place, the color palate akin to dishwater. The only visual treat is Chastain’s colorful, tacky wardrobe, which she adopts to fit the part of a poker madam. “You look like the Cinemax version of yourself,” Charlie hisses in court.
It’s a fine showcase for Chastain’s mastery of smart, rapid-fire dialogue, and Elba is a fine sparring partner for her. But the movie could easily be trimmed by 45 minutes. It’s a rollicking tale, but it remains uncommitted.
Rated R for language, drug content and some violence. 2:20. Fayette, Hamburg, Nicholasville.