Say the name Aaron Sorkin and you'll think of fast-talking drama. Rapid-fire dialogue across courtrooms and boardrooms. Powerful men who can't handle the truth. Complex political machinations in corridors of power. Sports execs gaming the system. A multi-millionaire geek staring at his Facebook page and clicking refresh, refresh, refresh.
Sorkin's an Oscar-winning screenwriter at the top of his game, making his directorial debut with this true-life story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic-standard skier who reinvented herself as 'the Poker Princess'. She ran private gambling games for the Hollywood elite, including movie stars, musicians and members of the mob, and found herself immersed in a court case involving millions of dollars and the Russian Mafia.
A talky, 140-minute courtroom drama based on a story no one's ever heard of sounds like a risky move for a first feature, but the gamble has absolutely paid off. It's no surprise that Molly's Game is snappy, stylish and slick, but against the odds it's also incredibly emotional and fiercely feminist.
Like The Social Network, Molly's Game is structured around a legal battle. Two years after she shut down her poker games, Molly Bloom is arrested at her apartment by a squad of armed police. Her money and property is confiscated and she is given just days to find representation for a hearing on the other side of a America which could ultimately result in a hefty custodial sentence. How we got here, and where we go from here is the business of the film.
Jessica Chastain is electric, playing Molly from hopeful twentysomething skier, through her burgeoning poker hostess career, rise to power and increasing drug and alcohol dependency, to rehabilitation and eventual trial.
Molly is a character we very rarely see in cinema: an aspiring athlete hampered by a horrendous accident who isn't a tragic figure. A gorgeous, glamorous woman with a sky-high IQ but no love interest or child, who isn't a femme fatale. An addict and a criminal who isn't a cautionary tale.
Rarer still is a casting a 40-year-old actress to play younger, but without a doubt it was the right decision. Chastain is surely at the front of the queue for the Best Actress Oscar for a performance that's powerful and nuanced and likely to reduce audiences to tears.
It's Chastain's movie but the supporting cast shine too. Idris Elba is her Jimmy Stewart-esque 'good man' lawyer, reluctant to represent her at first because of her sleazy tabloid profile and tarnished reputation, though he learns to see beyond the headlines.
Michael Cera is an unnamed Hollywood megastar based on a real person (we never find out who) who is as sadistic as he is charming. Kevin Costner is infuriating and heartbreaking as Molly's cold, ambitious, father. There might be a bit too much cod psychology going on at times in the presentation of their relationship – to the extent that he is an actual psychologist and in one key scene gives her 'three minutes of therapy' – but you'd have to be a cold soul not to be moved.
Sorkin's dialogue, as expected, is machine-gun fast and the sparring between Elba and Chastain is hilarious and delicious, while the shooting style, in the capable hands of cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (who shot Fences and The Girl on the Train) is more controlled and still.
It's an incredibly assured debut from Sorkin with a distinctive aesthetic – the movie looks like it could be set in the '80s (it's not), capturing the claustrophobic window-free atmosphere of a casino in a time-capsule bubble inhabited by very rich men who think money and power can buy you everything. Sadly relevant in the current climate.
Molly's Game has a plot packed with moral ambiguities but Molly is an old-fashioned hero unwilling to compromise her principles. Comparisons to Erin Brockovich are inevitable and justified, but though Steven Soderbergh's film, which won Julia Roberts an Oscar, tackles bigger social issues, Molly's Game is funnier, more emotional and more unusual.
An absolute shoo-in for for Best Adapted Screenplay and a good bet for Chastain as Best Actress, in a year which didn't include Dunkirk, Sorkin's movie could even have been a contender for Best Picture.
But forget awards: Molly's Game is a hugely entertaining, emotional and important movie which more than deserves a…*cough* full house.
Director: Aaron Sorkin; Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin; Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Chris O'Dowd ; Running time: 140 minutes; Certificate: 15
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