Molly's Game review: Sorkin's directorial debut has plenty of substance but is missing style

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Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in Molly's Game

As the words behind the West Wing and The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin is the master of writing fast-talking, smart-alecs who convey a lot of specialist knowledge very quickly.

In that regard, Molly’s Game is more of the same. Based on a memoir by Molly Bloom, it follows her remarkable journey from young Olympic skiing hopeful to doyenne of America’s most exclusive, high stakes underground poker circuit. Molly “runs games”, which basically amounts to creating man caves out of hotel suites.

She stocks up on booze and models, then invites a bunch of A-list men (well, Michael Cera) and Wall Street billionaires to pay £250,000 so they can sit around a table trying to convince each other they’ve got “pocket rockets” or “the nuts”. No, really, this is genuine poker lingo, lads.

So far, so Sorkin. Yet, for the first time, he’s also sitting in the director’s chair and he made a safe bet casting Jessica Chastain in the title role. She’s a firebrand, as usual – see, Miss Sloane and Zero Dark Thirty – a tough flame-headed lass in a man’s world.

More interesting are flashbacks to her time as a preppy girl trying to earn her dad’s approval on the slopes, with these scenes allowing Chastain to exercise some rarely-used vulnerable acting muscles. And there’s still something of the swot about her as she ages, counselling her billionaire clients – many of whom are dangerous gambling addicts – that “maybe this game isn’t for you.”

Idris Elba is another great casting decision as Molly’s lawyer Charlie Jaffey. It isn’t a great role; there’s next to no character development, just his repeated attempts get to know the ‘real’ Molly, the woman behind the Poker Princess nickname given to her by the tabloids after she’s arrested by the FBI. Nevertheless, he carries it off with a great deal of charisma and style, something this adaptation is sorely lacking.

The absence of Sorkin’s sometime collaborator David Fincher’s seductive gloom is keenly felt here, and the end result is almost clinical in its execution. Caught between a court drama and a biopic, it ends up botching both jobs.

Even Molly’s outfits as she gets rises through the social strata – there are 90 worn throughout the film – lack a certain glamour.

Molly’s Game is a compelling story, well told, but will fail to win hearts as well as minds.