Sorkin keeps dialogue snappy in 'Molly's Game,' but the rest is wandering

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service

Aaron Sorkin became an auteur without ever having directed a film, with his wordy, rat-a-tat dialogue often imitated, never duplicated. With his directorial debut, "Molly's Game," Sorkin sticks to what he knows, adapting Molly Bloom's poker memoir into a fast-talking, free-wheeling vehicle for a powerhouse performance by Jessica Chastain, who holds the whole thing together. As it turns out, Sorkin's strengths haven't yet extended to behind the camera.

Molly's poker story is framed by a brutal ski accident endured during an unsuccessful bid for the Olympics, which illustrates her drive to succeed, to win and to crush goals, motivated by the extreme pressure put on her by her therapist father (Kevin Costner). So when Molly decides to put her mind to orchestrating the best underground poker game in Los Angeles, Molly will execute better than anyone ever has.

The narrative bounces around with abandon, from Molly's childhood to her rise and fall in LA and New York, to her legal proceedings several years later, after FBI agents have roused her from her bed, arresting her for a two-year-old crime to bring some shiny tabloid attention to their mob bust. Broke, she begs for help from a New York lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who reluctantly takes her on.

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As Charlie reads her memoir, he questions Molly about her wild tales of debauchery, movie stars and moguls winning and losing hundreds of thousands in a single night. She's forthcoming but coy because the only thing more important to Molly than money is her name, her reputation.

Cash rules everything around Molly, who is savantlike when it comes to money. We don't quite know what made her that way, aside from her disciplinarian father, or even why an upper-middle class overachiever would find herself cocktailing and working thankless assistant jobs to pay the rent, especially when law school was the other option. Sorkin doesn't flesh that out.

In a late third act scene, Molly's father makes an attempt to dadsplain her psychology, but the film refuses to commit to an answer. You never really know what they're trying to say about Molly and how she came to find herself in this high-stakes business — carrying millions in debt, addicted to pills, on the wrong end of a mob enforcer's fist.

While the script crackles and excites, the film itself is profoundly uncinematic — the style is flat and staid, cutting methodically back and forth between camera setups that are rooted in place, the color palate akin to dishwater. The only visual treat is Chastain's colorful, tacky wardrobe, the one she adopts to fit the part of a poker madam. "You look like the Cinemax version of yourself," Charlie hisses in court. Nothing is all that formally interesting to look at, so Sorkin relies on verbal bombast and excellent actors.

It's a fine showcase for Chastain's ability to keep every molecule of attention on her for two hours and 20 minutes, and her mastery of smart, rapid-fire dialogue. Elba is a fine sparring partner for her. But the movie could easily stand to lose about 45 minutes. It's a rollicking tale, but it remains uncommitted. At the end of the epic, it's unclear what Sorkin truly wants to say about Molly and her game.

2.5 stars
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Bill Camp, Michael Cera, Kevin Costner.
Directed by Aaron Sorkin.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Rated R for language, drug content and some violence.