Molly’s Game (15)

AARON Sorkin has been dazzling us as a screenwriter for 25 years, from his big screen debut A Few Good Men, through the TV landmark that was The West Wing, to his Oscar-winning script for The Social Network. Now he’s turned his hand to directing, with this true-life tale of the “poker princess” who ran high-stakes gambling for the rich, famous and infamous.

The good news is that while Sorkin proves perfectly able behind the camera, he has the common sense not to get carried away with his new toys – and still expects his writing and actors to do the heavy lifting. With another sensational performance by Jessica Chastain, the best work by Idris Elbe since his breakthrough role in The Wire, and the fizzing, funny, intelligent dialogue that is Sorkin’s forte, the result is fabulously entertaining.

Chastain is proving to be the go-to actress to play strong, independent, highly articulate women with a slightly reckless streak. Earlier this year she was the icy, hotshot lobbyist in Miss Sloane, playing a dangerous game against Washington’s most powerful players. Now she’s Molly Bloom, on whose memoir Sorkin has based his screenplay and whose escapades seem like the stuff of fiction.

Sorkin begins as he means to go on, with a prologue in which Molly narrates how her initial dream to become an Olympic skier came to an abrupt end. With Chastain wrapping her tongue around her whip-smart and super-fast monologue as though she’d been a West Wing staffer for years, and Sorkin showing that he’s learned a thing or two about editing from two of his directors, David Fincher (The Social Network) and Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs), this rat-a-tat episode truly takes the breath away.

The storytelling that follows is no less dexterous, as Sorkin moves back and forth between two narrative strands: one, Molly’s account of her alternative to Olympic glory, a 10-year career running exclusive, barely legal poker games, first in Hollywood, then New York, whose players gambled for hundreds of thousands of dollars; the other, as she is arrested by the FBI and threatened with jail unless she snitches on the Russian mob who were, unbeknownst to her, among her clients.

To defend her she enlists squeaky clean lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Elbe), who is wary of representing a woman who “broke the law then wrote a book about it” but does so because his young daughter is a fan. The pair’s relationship, developing from mistrust to friendship via some excellent chemistry between the actors, is the single most enjoyable aspect of the film.

But there’s also plenty of colour in the back story, as Molly’s intelligence, beauty and integrity draw some very rich gamblers to her tables, including actors, businessmen and gangsters. Among them: “Player X” (Michael Cera), who only plays, he says, because “I like destroying lives”; “Bad Brad”, whose ineptness at poker has disastrous consequences for others; and Douglas Downey (the wonderfully droll Chris O’Dowd), an amiable drunk who is in love with Molly.

Though much of the conversation is highly amusing, it’s actually a dark business. All these card players are men, either monstrous or ridiculous, and in some way Molly is embroiled with them because of the toweringly negative presence in her life of her psychologist father (Kevin Costner). Attempting to control both men and the drug habit gained through endless all-nighters proves a difficult task.

The audience itself could feel daunted by the sheer volume of talk, information and erudition at the table – Sorkin does like to go “all in” – were it not so brilliantly dealt.