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Aaron Sorkin takes on high-stakes poker in his terrifically fun directorial debut Molly’s Game

The celebrated screenwriter can direct, too.

Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in Molly’s Game
Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in Molly’s Game
Michael Gibson / STX Films
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

“Aaron Sorkin does a poker movie” is a flat-out terrific idea, and so obvious a fit for his talents that it’s hard to believe he hasn’t done it before. And yet Sorkin — the only screenwriter on the planet who can open a film based solely on his name — has mostly stuck to newsrooms, technologists, and politics before now. He’s also stuck to screenwriting.

For Molly’s Game, though, he’s venturing out into new territory, on two fronts: He’s written a poker movie, and for the first time, he’s directed it too.

Which makes perfect sense. Sorkin’s body of work is beloved because he’s the reigning king of competence porn. We love watching people who are at the top of their comedy/news/programming/politicking game do what they do, even if they’re gruff or irritating or outright mean. In everything he writes, from Sports Night to Steve Jobs, Sorkin’s method is to stick a bunch of those ultra-competent characters in one room, wind them up, and let them go, for our viewing pleasure.

Poker lends itself to this kind of tale, because — as the movie reminds us — it’s not a game of chance; it’s a game of finely tuned skill, and it requires its players to be able to lie, do complicated probability calculations, and charm frenemies for hours on end. That’s all on display in Molly’s Game, and when it works, it sings.

But there are two degrees of competence porn in this movie. Not only are we watching crackerjack players, but we’re also assured from the first scene that we can relax, that we’re in the hands of a master. Sorkin is still a better writer than director, but the fun of watching this film comes mostly from witnessing him at the top of his game.

Molly’s Game is a true story of extreme chance

For a poker movie, Molly’s Game is unusual: its main character never plays a single game of poker. Instead, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) is the facilitator. She used to be an Olympic-level freestyle skier coached by her hard-nosed therapist father (Kevin Costner). But after an accident — which unfolds in the very first scene of the movie — and a few detours, she took up running high-stakes poker games, the kind where the buy-in is $250,000 and everyone at the table is used to being the most powerful guy in the room.

Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game
Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game
Michael Gibson / STX Films

The real-life Bloom wrote a memoir about these games, which Sorkin adapted for the movie. She also wound up in trouble with the federal government, which is the film’s framing device. After her apartment is raided by the FBI, she ends up in the office of a squeaky-clean lawyer, Charles Jaffey (Idris Elba), looking for help.

Molly’s Game unfolds largely as a series of flashbacks from Charles and Molly’s conversations about the case. In voiceover, Molly explains her rise, after her ski accident, from cocktail waitress to “poker princess,” running six games a week, making millions, and staying awake and charming with a potent concoction of pills and booze. Even though Molly never plays a hand, she’s just like her players: addicted to extreme high-stakes risk and to rubbing shoulders with the powerful people who can take those risks.

What Charles discovers while trying to get to the bottom of her case is that while Molly made her fortune facilitating others’ vices, she also ran a mostly clean operation, technically legal until its final months. And Molly’s stubborn insistence on protecting her clients’ names and reputations, despite the dirt she has on them all, makes his job surprisingly difficult.

Molly’s Game works because its screenplay is Sorkin at his best

The flashback model of storytelling rarely works in films, and in Molly’s Game it’s still the weakest link; the story slows down every time we jump away from Molly’s past and into Jaffey’s office. But as with poker, the whole thing rides on not revealing its hand until near the end of the movie — and Sorkin’s signature needle-sharp dialogue and Chastain and Elba’s performances keep the game moving along.

There are also a few tells that remind us Sorkin is getting his bearings as a director, mostly in the way shots are occasionally lit and framed. (The way his camera slices off the very top of characters’ heads becomes a tad irritating.) All films are constructed in the editing room, but this one — which lists three editors, an unusually high number, in its credits — sometimes feels like a few more shots to choose from might have made it more kinetic, particularly the scenes in the law office.

Jessica Chastain and Chris O’Dowd in Molly’s Game
Jessica Chastain and Chris O’Dowd in Molly’s Game
Michael Gibson / STX Films

Yet this is recognizably Sorkin, and those are minor annoyances, because the real heart of Molly’s Game is the script, which has the tempo of jazz, and Sorkin’s direction matches his patter. It’s glorious to see Elba working with great dialogue, but the movie belongs to Chastain, who throws herself into this role with abandon and vigor, and sells it completely.

There’s a lot Sorkin’s fans love about the writer — particularly the way he manages to explain complicated ideas (policies, economics, technologies, international crises, and now poker) in ways that, whether or not they’re accurate, sure seem like they are. We feel like we’re getting smarter just watching.

That’s all on display here; poker can be a hard thing to explain to people who don’t play, but the screenplay cuts through the jargon and gives even non-players enough knowledge to know when to groan at a particularly crazy bluff. On the flip side, though, the movie also features the inevitable Sorkin scene (and a surprisingly clunky one) in which a powerful man explains to the flawed woman character why she acts the way she does — the least appetizing but always present part of his scripts.

But you have to know it’s coming, and the rest of the film is good enough to excuse it. It has moral lessons to teach the viewer (because this is Sorkin, after all): A good name is sometimes all you have, and it’s worth protecting at all costs, and even fools are worthy of empathy. It gets a lot of great scenes in to satisfy even the most competence-addicted audience member. And it makes it pretty clear that gambling on directing his own screenplay is a bet Sorkin ought to take again.

Molly’s Game premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will open in US theaters on November 22.

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