Martin Scorsese could be forgiven for having a beef with first-timers. Twice when the smart money suggested he was a shoo-in for a best director Oscar, he remained firmly in his seat as the gongs went to moonlighting upstarts from a different discipline muscling in on his territory.
It happened with Raging Bull at the 1981 ceremony, with Marty beaten to the punch by Robert Redford for Ordinary People; a decade later, GoodFellas was the the film on everyone’s lips, but he lost out to Kevin Costner for Dances with Wolves. He won’t be in the running at this year’s prize day, but if he were and was trumped by Aaron Sorkin (an outsider tip for when nominations are announced in late January), he could at least take solace in the fact that the celebrated screenwriter’s directorial bow owes him a huge stylistic debt.
The fast cuts, multifarious music cues and street-smart leading character narration of Molly’s Game will be familiar to seasoned Scorsese watchers; this is a film rich in motifs borrowed from the aforementioned GoodFellas, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. At the same time, however, it’s indelibly stamped with the traits that have earned Sorkin several shelves of awards for his previous big and small screen work.
Based on the memoir by former Olympic skiing hopeful Molly Bloom, whose sporting career was cut short by a harrowing injury, the game of the title is high-stakes poker for the Hollywood elite, moneybags businessmen and professional card sharps. Initially bullied into hosting baize-tabled showdowns in a gopher-like role by her nightmarishly selfish boss, Molly eventually goes it alone, only to be hung out to dry by vindictive players, before her troubles escalate further when shady Mob bosses and the FBI get involved.
As evidenced by TV’s The West Wing and his scripts for Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network and Moneyball, Sorkin relishes wielding a smart-mouthed machete to slice through complex and potentially confusing topics. Viewers won’t need a diploma in either the bewildering nuts and bolts of poker or the loophole-infested vagaries of US gambling legislation (“Make sure you’re not breaking the law while you’re breaking the law,” one adviser tells Molly), as everything is laid out in easy-to-follow cinematic spreadsheets.
Sorkin’s zippy, riffing script makes mincemeat of what might otherwise be dry subject matter by, to all intents and purposes, serving up dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in a screwball comedy. The West Wing is the obvious touchstone: think Josh explaining the American political process to his assistant Donna on a “walk and talk”, or the verbal jousting between press secretary CJ Cregg and communications director Toby Ziegler.
The latter is the most likely template for the quickfire exchanges between Jessica Chastain’s feisty, unrepentant Molly and Idris Elba as Charlie Jaffey, the at-first-sceptical lawyer who takes on her case. For all the visual bravura and Scorsese-friendly plot-driving montages, it’s these scenes that set the tone and dictate the pace of a movie that enthrals from start to finish.
Chastain is fast cornering the market in aggressively confident, single-minded women, her portrayal of Molly containing echoes of the characters she played in Zero Dark Thirty and Miss Sloane, an addition to her growing CV of feminist heroes. Elba is no slouch, either, finally landing a cinema role that plays to his strengths as a charismatic, no-nonsense alpha in keeping with his television breakthroughs (The Wire, Luther).
The leads may take on most of the heavy lifting, but are helped enormously by key supporting players, not least Kevin Costner as Molly’s overbearing and pushy father. Seen initially in the film’s prologue and flashback sequences coaching Molly the teenage skier, it becomes evident where Molly gets her ruthless streak.
Two names more usually associated with comedy make a strong dramatic impact. Michael Cera is a revelation as a baby-faced actor (based on a real-life celebrity, but named only as Player X here and in the original book) showing his steely side at the poker table and beyond, while Chris O’Dowd gets formidable mileage out of the drunken, poetically minded gambler responsible for introducing Molly to the Russian mafia.
Once all the chips have been counted, however, this is Chastain’s movie, and she strides luminously through every one of her scenes with gritty determination. We learned little about her characters’ private lives in Zero Dark Thirty or Miss Sloane, and it’s largely the same here (save for the brief interludes that focus on her fractious relationship with Bloom senior), but it’s to her – and Sorkin’s – credit that despite a minimal back story Molly never comes across as incomplete.
It’s a role that demands a wise head, a combative streak, precision comic timing and an occasional air of vulnerability. Chastain nails every single requirement with ease. She’d make a great poker player.
Molly’s Game is released in cinemas on Monday 1 January