Molly’s Game

Screenwriter/playwright Sorkin, known for his chatty, chatty scripts, makes his directorial debut with Molly's Game, and it's pretty much what you'd expect. It's witty. It's fast-paced. It's clever but not as clever as it thinks it is. Sorkin-as-director shows no trailblazing visual flair, but he lets his fine cast do their jobs, and from the depths of seemingly standalone scenes the plot's arc sneakily emerges, time and time again. Whether or not you love his wall-to-wall dialogue, Sorkin remains a skillful dramatist.

Molly's Game recounts the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), the real-life former Olympic skiing hopeful who, thanks to some skillful strategy and a few lucky breaks, made millions hosting the most exclusive private poker games in the world.

The film opens with Molly's voiceover – Sorkin won't give us even 30 seconds of cinematic silence – explaining that all the names in the film have been changed except for hers. With a wink, Sorkin takes this to an absurd degree, rechristening West Hollywood's Viper Room, where the poker games began, as the "Cobra Lounge", even as the set design copies the Viper Room's interior to a tee.

Occasionally this pseudonymity distracts: it's stated numerous times that major celebrities are seated at Bloom's table, so I kept wondering just who each onscreen character was meant to represent. (One is obvious: Michael Cera, quite good in a dramatic turn, plays a smug, boyish A-lister nicknamed "Player X" – in the early 2000s, that could have only been renowned poker enthusiast Tobey Maguire. Given Sorkin's penchant for excoriating arrogant young jerks, Maguire comes across as a nasty little turd, which is likely accurate.) But there's a point to this: Bloom stands firm, throughout her legal turmoils and book offers, that she will not name names and ruin lives. So even though certain identities have been confirmed in the real world – look them up if you wish – Molly's Game chivalrously keeps mum, in deference to its protagonist.

Chastain is the right choice to play Bloom. She's a talented performer who is sometimes tricky to cast: her inherent fragility made her an unconvincing lead in Zero Dark Thirty, and I didn't quite buy her in Crimson Peak, but here she's a perfect fit. Bloom may be savvy and world-weary, but she's a young single woman all alone in alpha male territory and there's an ever-present danger that any of these guys can make things very bad for her. She's an interesting character too, navigating her way through ethically murky waters to both triumphant and disastrous ends. Chastain finds all these nuances and plays them well.

The ending falters. Sorkin, as is his wont, wraps things up a little too tidily, emotionally speaking. (Bloom's father, played by Kevin Costner, is the problem, although Costner himself is blameless: Sorkin keeps playing up Bloom's daddy issues as if they're the only root of her motivations and it's a cheap trick, especially given the pseudo-feminist themes of the film.) Still, I recommend Molly's Game. It tells a fascinating story and doesn't gloss over the moral complexities.