It seems a little strange to think that writer Aaron Sorkin hasn’t directed a movie yet. His distinct stamp is on so many films (and TV shows) that they often feel like more like his projects than the work of their respective directors. As one of the preeminent screenwriters in the business, he’s behind memorable movies like The Social Network (for which he won the Oscar), Moneyball, and Steve Jobs. But can you remember who directed any of those? (For the record it was David Fincher, Bennett Miller, and Danny Boyle.)

Now Sorkin is finally getting his shot in the big chair with Molly’s Game, the biopic of Molly Bloom, who made a name for herself running a string of hugely successful high-stakes poker games in Los Angeles and New York. And he’s out of the starting gate with a bang.

Sorkin’s trademark dialogue, chock-full of in-depth explanations and random bits of trivia, is on full display in Molly’s Game, helping make it one of the more entertaining movies in recent months (…assuming you’re a Sorkin fan—there are plenty of folks who can’t say “Sorkin” without a sneer), and Jessica Chastain’s bravura performance as Bloom only heightens the appeal—no mean feat given the fact that Bloom isn’t the most likable person.

It’s Sorkin’s direction that will be most scrutinized by Hollywood critics, though; we already know he can write, and we know Chastain can act circles around most people, but can Sorkin prove he belongs behind the camera? In a word, yes. It’s not an unqualified, resounding debut, but he does enough to make Molly’s Gamework, and he never forgets that his words are his strength.

The story begins in 2001 as Bloom is in the middle of Olympic qualifying for mogul skiing. After a devastating crash knocks her out of the competition, we fast-forward 12 years and watch as she’s arrested by the FBI in the middle of the night for hosting illegal poker games. Then, in true Sorkin style we flashback to see where all the troubles began and then watch as, from the humblest of beginnings, Bloom ends up becoming the so-called “poker princess”, hosting a multi-million-dollar weekly game that (in real life) catered to A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, and Tobey Maguire (played in the movie by Michael Cera and known only as “Player X”).

At times Molly’s Game mirrors Bud Fox’s rise and fall in Wall Street, as a cautionary tale about flying too close to the sun. At others it’s a fairly riveting legal drama as Bloom trades verbal spars with her attorney Charlie Jaffey (the excellent Idris Elba). Newbie director Sorkin keeps the plotlines taut most of the way (things start to sag a little toward the end) and wisely allows his stellar cast, which also includes Kevin Costner as Bloom’s overbearing father and Chris O’Dowd as one of the players, to carry the action. And, of course, the actors are spouting Sorkin’s whip-smart, cerebral dialogue, which doesn’t hurt.

There’s no doubting the fact that Bloom isn’t terribly endearing as a person (the term “anti-hero” certainly seems to apply), but Chastain, giving her finest performance since 2013’s Zero Dark Thirty, succeeds in making her story a completely engrossing one. And though Sorkin doesn’t quite get there in his efforts to make Molly’s Game a royal flush, it is his first time at the table, and he proves he belongs.


4/5 stars