Watching an Aaron Sorkin movie is like being cornered at a party by a smart, funny, hyper-verbal monomaniac who’s in love with the sound of his own voice — for good reason, but still — and whose scintillating yada-yada finally gets to the point where it’s time to find your coat and go. “Molly’s Game” holds off until fairly close to the end, which is one of the best parts about it. The other is Jessica Chastain.
Well, her and the bedraggled rogue’s gallery who play the gamblers clustering around her character, Molly Bloom. Bloom ran an ongoing and illegal high-stakes poker game in Los Angeles and then New York in the first decade of the new millennium; she ultimately fell afoul of federal prosecutors, narrowly avoided jail, wrote a book, and here’s the inevitable movie, not only scripted by Sorkin but directed by him in his behind-the-camera debut.
It’s a good story, but what part of it do you tell? Because Sorkin’s writing the script, all of it: backstory, front-story, subtext, meta-text. We learn what drove Bloom in her youthful skiing career — a hard-charging jerk of a sports dad (Kevin Costner) — and we see her land in Los Angeles after an injury, working for another jerk (Dean Keith) who runs a weekly big-ante game patronized by top echelon stars, executives, athletes, and attorneys.
It’s a man’s world and Molly knows instinctively how to turn it to her advantage. In short order, she’s running the game herself and balancing the egos of any number of high-maintenance high rollers, half of whom want to sleep with her and the other half of whom just want to win their money back.
Bloom narrates — or, rather, Sorkin narrates in that rapid-fire, info-heavy banter he does so well, and Chastain convincingly reads his words aloud in character. The actress is expert at negotiating the hairpin turns of plot and dialogue, and the scenes purr along between Bloom and Idris Elba as Charlie Jaffey, the pricey (and fictionalized) lawyer who takes her case when the feds accuse Molly of colluding with the Russian mob. There’s something to be said for getting played by pros, and watching these two charismatic people volley tough talk back and forth as if it were an overdesigned birdie is good movie fun.
Also enjoyable are the actors playing the various “fish” who bet big, win big, or fold big at Molly’s games. “Player X” is the main draw for the suckers; he’s apparently based on some amalgam of Tobey Maguire and Matt Damon, with maybe a pinch of Leo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck thrown in for seasoning, and he’s played by Michael Cera with a marvelous soul-dead grin.
Among the less lucky are Brian d’Arcy James as a classic sucker with money, Bill Camp as a poker legend who turns one bad night into an existential meltdown, Joe Keery (“Stranger Things”) as a kid nicknamed Trust Fund Cole, and the always welcome Chris O’Dowd as a slippery, lovestruck idiot — the guy who always hangs around after the game to “talk.” “Molly’s Game” plays nicely in this milieu but you can feel Sorkin pulling his punches, holding back from the tragicomedy of desperate male insecurity that’s right there on the table.
For a directorial debut, the movie’s confident and slickly made; it’s not like Sorkin hasn’t been around a movie set before. He leans on the writing, not surprisingly, whereas a visual stylist like, say, Scorsese might have turned the movie into a cynical three-ring circus. And because Sorkin the director isn’t willing to cut anything written by Sorkin the writer, we have a simply awful scene in which Costner, as Molly’s psychology professor dad, gives her “three years of therapy in three minutes” while the two sit on a bench by a Manhattan ice rink.
The sequence is preposterous, backdated Freud for the cheap seats, and it doesn’t “explain” Molly so much as give the movie an excuse not to dig any deeper. It’s tempting to think of “Molly’s Game” in poker terms: Sorkin’s holding a queen, a king, and at least a couple of aces, but the tell is that he talks too much, and in the end you realize he’s bluffing.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Molly Bloom. Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 140 minutes. R (language, drug content, some violence).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.