“This was back when I was still making good decisions,” Molly Bloom tells us, at a fairly early stage of her narration. So you know it’s going to get a little hairy for our heroine the longer “Molly’s Game” goes on.
This film is adapted from Bloom’s memoir, which told of her unlikely journey from Olympic skiing hopeful to the host of a floating high-stakes poker game for the very rich. Bloom’s odd tale is transformed into a breathless movie by the hothouse writing of Aaron Sorkin and the steady-on performance of Jessica Chastain.
Sorkin loves conversation, as he has demonstrated in his TV series “The West Wing” and films such as “The Social Network.” “The West Wing” went off the air over a decade ago, and I think some of the characters are still talking.
“Molly’s Game” is Sorkin’s first time directing, and it plays like everything else he’s done: in thrall to words, and in a hurry to get somewhere.
As Molly Bloom (played by Chastain) tells us her story, we whipsaw between her poker career and her sessions with a lawyer (Idris Elba). He’s trying to figure out a defense, now that she’s been arrested — so the movie’s kind of like “GoodFellas,” but with its flow interrupted by legal planning.
The characters who populate Bloom’s story are suitably colorful: a Hollywood actor known as Player X (a quietly creepy Michael Cera); a smart player who cracks up in one epic session at the table (Bill Camp); a weepy big loser who eventually confesses his love to Molly (Chris O’Dowd).
On the latter point, one of the ways this film is refreshing is that it’s about process, not romance. Sorkin is concerned with how systems operate, so we learn the intricacies of a floating poker game — but we don’t waste any of the film’s 140 minutes on Bloom in love.
Sorkin can’t resist psychology, however, so we do get quite a bit of Molly’s dad (Kevin Costner). He drove his daughter to excel in childhood, and thus must make a late-breaking confession that resolves various things, a scene that feels contrived from the get-go.
Chastain’s rapid-paced exchanges with Elba are like watching two strong athletes lobbing the ball across the net at each other. Her determined performance is scrubbed free of self-pity, and even when Sorkin’s script gets heavy-handed, she keeps the movie on its rushing trajectory.
“Molly’s Game” (3 stars)
“Social Network” writer Aaron Sorkin directs a typically talkative true story, about a woman who ran a high-stakes poker game for the rich and famous. Heavy-handed at times, but Jessica Chastain’s performance and Sorkin’s dialogue keep it watchable. With Idris Elba and Kevin Costner.
Rating: R, for language, violence