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Molly’s Game is proof that Aaron Sorkin directs exactly like he writes

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the Toronto International Film Festival.

As a screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin has developed such a signature voice and style that certain elements can simply be described with his name alone. Extended monologues of endlessly perfect prose and wordplay, rapid-fire banter as characters walk and talk, heroes with an overdeveloped sense of their own moral superiority; they’re all Sorkin-esque, and it usually doesn’t take more than a single scene to suss out who’s behind the typewriter.

But with his latest film, Molly’s Game, Sorkin is stepping into the role of director for the first time. It’s the based-on-true-events story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a woman who ran high-stakes underground poker rings in Hollywood and New York before ending up on the wrong end of a federal investigation. As it turns out, Sorkin the director is very much like Sorkin the screenwriter. His film is full of grand stylistic flourishes and epic emotional gestures. And as always, the impassioned Sorkin-esque monologue rules the day.

But wearing two hats also appears to have let the writer-director become a better critic of his own work. Molly’s Game is the best of Sorkin, with many of his problematic tendencies removed, resulting in a tremendously entertaining film that turns the prolific writer into a filmmaking double-threat in one fell swoop.

What’s the genre?

Molly’s Game is arguably a crime drama, but simply calling it that sells the film a bit short. It’s also part biography, part legal thriller, and part comedy — but if we’re going to stick to a broader label, crime drama it shall be.

What’s it about?

Given Sorkin’s fondness for toying with structure, it shouldn’t be a shock that Molly’s Game jumps around multiple timelines. The streamlined version goes something like this: Molly Bloom is an aspiring Olympic athlete whose dreams are crushed after a freak accident. Moving to Los Angeles, she helps run an underground poker game for Hollywood actors and elites, which she then turns into her own thriving business. The film jumps between that timeline, and one several years later, as Molly works with her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to defend herself against federal charges.

What’s it really about?

There are a lot of themes kicking around in Sorkin’s script, several of which are handily spelled out in one particularly amusing scene where Molly’s psychologist father (Kevin Costner) gives her several years worth of “accelerated therapy” in one conversation. But ultimately, this is a film about resilience and sticking to convictions. Once Molly’s hopes of being an Olympic skier are washed away, she’s forced to reinvent herself — and creating her poker empire requires her to constantly face down threats from the forces trying to get in her way. Competitors, unhappy players, Russian mobsters; they’re all ready to stop Molly from succeeding, and she’s only able to achieve her success through sheer tenacity — and an intense work ethic.

When dealing with the investigation in the other storyline, she’s given multiple opportunities to cut deals and take easy outs. But she constantly feels it would violate her own moral code to sell out the players who trusted her in the first place. It probably sounds a little strange to be talking about ethics when it comes to a movie about an underground poker ring, but Molly is a Sorkin character, and it’s incredibly important to her that her principles on this point are unimpeachable.

Is it good?

Molly’s Game is tremendous fun, and Sorkin threads together the storylines and themes with ease. The movie never stops moving, propelled by both the script and the impressive performances. In the past, many of Sorkin’s female characters have been problematic, but Molly is an unstoppable force of nature, with Chastain working Sorkin’s dialogue like few actors can. At one point in the film, Idris Elba delivers a thundering speech that’s so impassioned, the audience I saw the film with broke into spontaneous applause. The supporting roles are flawlessly cast as well, with sharp, comedic performances from Chris O’Dowd, Michael Cera, and Brian d’Arcy James.

The one thing that threatens to detract from Molly’s Game is an opening sequence that’s overstuffed with directorial flourishes and affectations. It’s as if Sorkin was so concerned with proving that he’s a legitimate director that he tried to make the entire case with a single sequence, and the result is an opening that’s simply trying too hard. But soon after, Sorkin the director settles into his groove, capitalizing on the script and the performers at his disposal, and the movie just hums.

What should it be rated?

This one should be rated “R.” There are many reasons to point to, but one particular scene of brutal violence sealed the ratings deal for me.

How can I actually watch it?

Molly’s Game is scheduled for American release on November 22nd.

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