The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin makes his directorial debut with "Molly's Game," and it's a promising one at that. Swift, stylish, tough-minded and sharp-tongued, this engaging fact-based drama, about a young woman who at one point ran the richest poker game in the world, is worth recommending if only to see its star, Jessica Chastain, at the top of her nerviest, most icily self-controlled game.
Chastain plays Molly Bloom, who despite her fictional-sounding name was a real-life woman who was a highly ranked competitive skier before she moved to Los Angeles in the early 2000s. There, she came under the tutelage of an ambitious real estate investor and impresario who organized weekly poker games for the likes of Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio, among other high rollers. Watchful, dispassionate and preternaturally immune to the flirtations of the wealthy men in her orbit, Molly learned the ropes, struck out on her own and, inevitably, flew too close to the sun, eventually running afoul of the Russian mob and the U.S. government.
Adapted by Sorkin from Bloom's memoir with the screenwriter's signature percussive eclat, "Molly's Game" provides a crisp, rapid-fire tutorial, not just in the psychosocial dynamics of the elite gambling world, but in Molly's own demons and almost pathological drive, which we learn right away have their roots in a difficult relationship with her demanding father, played with crusty reserve by Kevin Costner. As a protagonist, Molly's an almost irresistible archetype: bright, competitive, charismatic and deeply wounded. It's the kind of character Chastain has played before, in such films as "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Miss Sloane" Here, Chastain adds dashes of vulnerability and compassion that turn an otherwise downbeat, even pitiless story into something, if not inspiring, at least slightly more meaningful than a dramatic fall from grace.
Sorkin does a terrific job of evoking the hothouse atmosphere of card games that might sound glamorous when boldface names are involved but also reek with the pitiful, dope-sick air of thinly veiled compulsion. Michael Cera delivers a slyly arrogant performance as a swaggering actor who may or may not be based on Maguire; far more compelling are regulars played by Bill Camp, Brian d'Arcy James and Chris O'Dowd, who personify the most sobering realities of the addiction that Molly exploits just as surely as if she were shooting them up every night.
Edited with alacrity and punctuated by "Big Short"-ish montages and illustrative asides, "Molly's Game" bristles with brittle intelligence that gives way to blunt-force comeuppance as Molly's position becomes more perilous. The action slows down a bit when she's in conference with her attorney, played by Idris Elba in a turn that relieves the snap-crackle-pop vibe with silky, seductive frissons.
"Molly's Game" only lets the air out of the balloon toward the end, during a pivotal encounter in Central Park that spells out everything way too obviously, even for the cheap seats that Sorkin so often refuses to pander to. That's when viewers might realize that, as entertaining as the tale has been, every character in the film seems to have spoken in the same cadence, with Sorkin's own operatic self-assurance, humor and perfectly turned phraseology. Still, "Molly's Game" is worth the ante: It pays off, both as slick, adult-oriented entertainment and morality tale.
R. Opens Christmas Day at area theaters. Contains coarse language, drug use and some violence. 140 minutes.