Aaron Sorkin gives new meaning to The Talkies. A wordsmith who leaves no one speechless and no zippy phrase unturned, he’s got a gift for gab that goes beyond logorrhea and prolixity into rat-a-tat felicity. In the past he has written scripts for others to direct—“The Social Network” and “The West Wing,” among many others. Now, in a move that was overdue, he’s making his directorial debut with “Molly’s Game,” a tale of poker and high rollers that he adapted from the memoir by
Given the movie’s high verbal revs—more words per minute than most mouths can pronounce—ideal casting for the title role might have been an auctioneer. Instead, we have
whose performance is as amazing as her phonation.
For a film that plays out mainly in the ritzier precincts of Los Angeles and New York, “Molly’s Game” has a surprisingly cinematic preface, set on ski slopes where Molly competes—with considerable promise—until a frozen pine branch gets in her way. She was raised to win, as she reflects later. When skis won’t take her toward the success she craves, she weaves her way, via waitressing and other modes of temporary life support, into a world of private, stratosphere-stakes poker games where she first recruits players, for profit, then runs her own games for greater profit but not much glory; the feds finally sweep her up in a RICO indictment. (
sporting a lovely New York accent, is
the criminal defense attorney who takes her on, reluctantly at first but then with splendid fervor.)
In his screenwriting capacity Mr. Sorkin celebrates gambling argot—one hears undertones, overtones and plain old tones of
As a director, he feasts on players’ faces, and their folkways, which include revenge rituals of the Russian mob. His cruise through a velvet netherworld, guided by Molly and elucidated by poker-hand graphics, is entertaining enough, though repetitive and emotionally inert. Also opaque, at times, unless you know more about poker than I do. The absence of feelings becomes most noticeable when there is, briefly, someone to have feelings for—a player named Harlan (another fine performance by Bill Camp) who assumes, at his peril, that an adversary can’t be as inept as he seems.
The same pattern of emotional famine leading to brief feasts applies to Molly herself. It’s coolly fascinating to watch her in flashbacks—speaking supersonically, surveying her table seductively, powering ever upward while she tries to stay honest and most of her clients keep trying to get back to even. But all of that is recollection and recapitulation. The present-time drama, with ruthless people going at each other ruthlessly—people going at each other is a pretty good description of drama—doesn’t gather force until her trajectory turns downward. That’s when the feds close in and Molly, with Charlie’s support, starts fighting for her life, her fortune and her future. (In one electrifying confrontation, Charlie, a former prosecutor, makes her case to a couple of U.S. attorneys who want to strip her of everything but her syntax.)
“Molly’s Game” proves some things we knew and some things we didn’t. Ms. Chastain has burnished a reputation as a passionate actress (”Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Tree of Life”) who’s also brilliant technically, and this adds to it; the burnishing here has less depth than gloss, but that’s the nature of her character. No one knew Mr. Sorkin was a good director, but he is, and his filmmaking chops come topped with intelligence and curiosity. That makes it all the more remarkable, and I don’t mean good remarkable, when the film takes a last-reel turn into slushy psycho-sappiness, enlisting someone we thought we’d seen the last of to explain what the story was really about. The same sort of explanation ended “Call Me by Your Name,” and it was charming. This is uncharming, but in one respect provocative. It does make you rethink the role of that frozen pine branch.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at firstname.lastname@example.org