Aaron Sorkin is a man of many words. Prizewinning words that have won Oscars and Emmys: for his adaptation of “The Social Network” and for his long run as the head writer on “The West Wing.” Through two-and-a-half decades he’s been coming up with words for actors to say. Now, taking the director’s seat for the first time with his own adaptation of the 2014 gambling biography “Molly’s Game,” he’s also able to say how he wants his actors to say what they say.

MOLLY’S GAME
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin
With Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Jeremy Strong, Kevin Costner
Rated R

 

Aaron Sorkin is a man of many words. Prizewinning words that have won Oscars and Emmys: for his adaptation of “The Social Network” and for his long run as the head writer on “The West Wing.” Through two-and-a-half decades he’s been coming up with words for actors to say. Now, taking the director’s seat for the first time with his own adaptation of the 2014 gambling biography “Molly’s Game,” he’s also able to say how he wants his actors to say what they say.

He’s got Jessica Chastain, as one-time “poker princess” Molly Bloom, who ran high-stakes underground card games in Los Angeles and New York, before the Feds caught up with her, saying most of them, sometimes on camera, often in narration, as the events she talks about unfold on the screen. Anyone wanting to really appreciate the film should pay careful attention to everything Sorkin’s given her to say. And there’s a lot of it.

Though the film spends much of its time looking in on the private card games she hosted, which started out “small,” with “only” a $10,000 buy-in for a changing group of celebrity players (actors, directors, rappers, business titans), it regularly flashes back to Molly as a young girl, being toughened up by her demanding dad, Larry (Kevin Costner), who attempts to turn her into a competitive skier, and forward to the days of her legal troubles, helped along by her sharp and expensive lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba).

Running the early L.A. games wasn’t her idea; it became part of her duties as an office assistant for her boss Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), a jerk with a bad gambling habit, who just wanted to play, and not be bothered by making sure things went smoothly. It was here that Molly not only hosted, she also paid strict attention to what was going on, learning all there was to know about poker. In turn, with Sorkin’s words, she teaches viewers all about it. By the time the film ends, you’ll understand terms like “fish” and what it means to “rake a game.”

But, again, paying attention is important. Sorkin makes it easy to understand what’s going on by using the neat trick of Molly’s narration of specific events while the events are being acted out. But the film’s pace is rapid, and its story becomes complex – partly because it jumps around in time, partly because the faces of the players keep changing, as do their various quirks, all of which are studied and remembered by Molly, who makes plenty of money courtesy of her players’ generous tips. But she’s also smart, never skimming from the pot, which would make it all illegal.

She evolves into a woman who’s very sure of herself, just as sure as her lawyer is of himself. The scenes of Chastain and Elba together, bouncing dialogue off each other as their client-counsel relationship develops, are highlights. As is the character arc that’s painted, moving from her as a competitive little girl to an impatient teenager, from an unhappy employee to a perfect host who watches out for her players, to a woman who’s increasingly reliant on drugs to wake up as well as to sleep.

Though Molly doesn’t realize it, her problems begin early on, as the West Coast games attract more players, then exacerbate when she moves the games East and unwittingly becomes involved with the Russian Mob, which is what raises the antennae of the FBI. The film takes a violent turn, situations become dire, and it all comes down to a moral question Molly has to face if she wants to avoid going to prison.

It gets a bit overdramatic near the end, and what likely seemed to be a good idea to Sorkin about messing with viewers’ emotions in the climax comes across as muddled when it’s played out. But it’s another strong script from him, and with an additional film or two under his belt, he’s going to be a compelling director.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.