Sorkin plays winning hand in 'Molly's Game'

Aaron Sorkin has a knack for timing, and not just in the obvious way.

Jessica Chastain plays Molly Bloom in “Molly’s Game.”

Aaron Sorkin has a knack for timing, and not just in the obvious way.

The Oscar-winning writer of “The Social Network,” “Moneyball” and other fast-talking scripts has been celebrated for his mile-a-minute wordplay. But he’s also been criticized for not featuring strong, complex female characters in his male-centric worlds.

In “Molly’s Game,” his first film with a female protagonist, and his directorial debut, Sorkin turns that around, presenting one of the more interesting female characters this season. And he could have chosen no better partner in crime than Jessica Chastain, one of the most intelligent and watchable actresses in movies today.

So far, so good. Chastain plays Molly Bloom, who went from being an Olympic skiing hopeful to spending years running high-stakes, celebrity-studded poker games in Los Angeles and New York, hosting names like Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio, until it all came crashing down when the Russian mob got involved and the FBI showed up and arresting her as part of an illegal gambling operation. She faced prison time but was ultimately cleared of many charges and got off with probation, a fine and community service.

It’s an engrossing story on its own, but Sorkin also chooses to portray Bloom as a sort of feminist heroine, who triumphed over the victimizing whims of the men around her‚ slimy (mostly) gamblers, an abusive boss, violent mobsters, and even her own father (an excellent Kevin Costner), a hard-driving sports dad and also a preachy psychologist. It’s a problematic choice, because it feels like it’s denying this obviously intelligent and capable protagonist the ability to make any of her own choices and mistakes.

Jessica Chastain plays Molly Bloom in “Molly’s Game,” Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut and a film with a female protagonist.

What we take from that early ski accident is that Molly is a survivor. The announcers wonder if she will even be able to stand, but she rises and walks off, a determined scowl on her face.

We jump to 12 years later, with Molly lying in bed and the FBI bursting in, guns blazing. How did she get from the slopes to the handcuffs? Now, back to several years earlier: She’s postponed law school and is soaking in the LA sun, working as a cocktail waitress, when a pompous patron (Jeremy Strong) hires her. Through him, she is introduced to the world of celebrity poker.

It’s a world lived in luxury clubs and hotel suites, where the players can be movie stars and the buy-in can be tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bloom’s uniform is a cleavage-baring designer sheath and stilettos. But she’s no eye candy. She’s smart as a whip, and learns enough about the game‚ though she never plays‚ to take it over when her boss stops paying her.

It’s a dizzying ride, and a wordy one; if Sorkin were being paid by the word, he’d have the best deal in Hollywood. A constant voiceover propels the action forward. The supporting players are routinely excellent: Cera, Chris Dowd, Brian D’Arcy James, and best of all, a heartbreaking Bill Camp, as a seasoned player who utterly loses it during one nightmare evening of poker.

Molly Bloom is also a literary name, and there are plenty of references to literature‚ specifically poetry, and also to “The Crucible,” in this fast-moving script. Despite some of Sorkin’s more debatable choices, his writing and especially Chastain’s charismatic presence make this an enjoyable tumble down some very slippery slopes.

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