For the past 25 years, Aaron Sorkin has had one of the snappiest and most singular writing voices in Hollywood. If you’ve spent any time watching The West Wing, Sports Night, and The Newsroom on the small screen or A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Moneyball on the silver one, what you probably responded to was his rat-a-tat volleys of dialogue. His characters always have the perfect comeback — the type of rapid-fire wise-guy pep-pill patter that characters in old Howard Hawks movies used to fire off at close range. His characters don’t just walk while they talk, they’re doing verbal handstands, intellectual somersaults, and whirligig trapeze dismounts. Of course, no one talks like this in real life. But that’s not the point. The point of watching a Sorkin show or movie is be transported to an alternate universe where we all feel smarter, funnier, and just better.
With a gift as unique as Sorkin’s, it was always only a matter of when — not if — he would try his hand at directing one of his own scripts. Still, who could’ve predicted that he’d be such a natural behind the camera the first time around? Aside from a few misdemeanor writerly indulgences, Sorkin’s fast-and-funny new morality tale, Molly’s Game, doesn’t feel like a directorial debut. It feels like an assured story told by a seasoned pro. Sorkin grafts his signature staccato lines onto the true story of Molly Bloom — a former Olympic skier who would end up channeling her iron will into more illicit ventures. Namely, running one of the country’s biggest and most exclusive underground poker games. That is, until the feds finally crashed the party. Sorkin, who’s always seemed more comfortable with alpha male types, was smart (or exceedingly lucky) to cast Jessica Chastain as his heroine, Molly. The film is easily the best showcase she’s had since Zero Dark Thirty. Still scarred by a complicated relationship with her overbearing father (Kevin Costner), Chastain’s Molly has created a hard shell to protect herself. She’s very good at pulling secrets out of others (especially the men who wager fortunes in her games), but doesn’t reveal much about herself. Sorkin’s fizzy dialogue is perfectly suited to both her whirring intelligence and her elastic ethics. She thinks she can fast-talk her way out of trouble. But, of course, she can’t.
Chastain tells Molly’s story through voiceovers and flashbacks — two overworked narrative devices that usually signal trouble. But here, it works in the same way that it worked in Martin Scorsese’s criminal confessionals Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. The story toggles back and forth between Molly’s glitzy poker-queen past and her less glitzy, under-indictment present. In that past, she lures fat cats and movie stars (including a terrifically jerky Michael Cera, who may or may not be playing Tobey Maguire) to pony up big money to play in her invite-only games. In her present, she selectively unspools her crimes to her not-quite-buying-it defense attorney played by Idris Elba — who gives and takes like Cary Grant to her Rosalind Russell.
It isn’t until the homestretch when the movie, which until that point is zipping along like a Formula One car, finally hits a few potholes. He tries too hard to make puzzle pieces fit into places they don’t belong. Things get a bit clunky and overly convenient, including a scene with Costner that feels like it should have been flagged by someone. Still, Molly’s Game is a cool, crackling, confident film that appeals to your intelligence instead of insulting it. At the movies, it may be the closest we’ll get to a Christmas miracle. A–