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Courtesy of STXfilms, STXfilms
Jessica Chastain in “Molly's Game."

“MOLLY'S GAME” — 3½ stars — Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O'Dowd; R (language, drug content and some violence); in general release

For his first directorial effort, longtime Hollywood screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has picked a subject that fits in nicely with his past writing efforts such as “Moneyball” and “The Social Network.” Based on a true story, “Molly’s Game” is a portrait of ambition and intelligence, and a warning about keeping both in check.

The film follows the rise and fall of Molly Bloom, a one-time Olympic hopeful who wound up running high-stakes poker games in New York and Los Angeles for a decade. We meet Molly (Jessica Chastain) on the slopes in Deer Valley, on the verge of qualifying for a spot on the U.S. Ski Team and a world stage at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, when a crash brings her lifelong dream to a halt.

Narration from Chastain starts to fill in the background, and we learn that Molly comes from a competitive and successful family, dominated by the demanding tutelage of her father, Larry (Kevin Costner). Her competitive and ambitious nature formed into a sizeable chip on her shoulder, so when Molly’s skiing career came to an end, it was just a matter of deciding what else to go be successful in.

Though the initial plan was law school, a part-time job at a club in Los Angeles hooks Molly up with a hotshot investment manager she calls Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) (early on Molly makes it clear that she’s changed all the names of the characters in her story). Molly is Dean's on-call assistant, and eventually he puts her in charge of a weekly poker game that features a variety of big-time celebrities, including a ruthless actor she refers to as Player X (played in the film by Michael Cera).

This is merely the first step in a 12-year process that takes Molly through a decade of running high-stakes games while gradually giving in to the temptations of the high life. Early on, she takes pains to keep her involvement legal, but as Molly sets out to start her own game, and eventually leaves Los Angeles for New York, she becomes involved in drugs, starts skimming profits and makes ties to the Russian mafia.

We learn about all of this as Molly relates her story to Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), the lawyer she hires when the FBI comes knocking with a criminal case. Molly’s efforts to stay out of jail anchor the film’s primary conflict, while the director uses flashbacks to fill in the infamous story that got her there.

Throughout the film, Sorkin paints a picture of a world that is glamorous, untoward and dangerous, where hundreds of thousands of dollars (and sometimes millions) hinge on single hands of poker. We meet some of the regular characters who haunt Molly’s tables, such as Harlan (Bill Camp), the cautious expert who snaps after losing to the inept “Bad Brad” (Brian d’Arcy James), or Douglas (Chris O’Dowd), who would linger long after the games to profess his love to Molly.

Chastain is the perfect fit as Molly, betraying the slightest sense of fear beneath her veneer of icy, vindictive confidence. Elba also puts in an excellent performance as Jaffey, largely thanks to some well-crafted dialogue courtesy of Sorkin, who also wrote the script.

As a story, “Molly’s Game” is absorbing and well told, even when Sorkin gets into the complex minutiae of poker strategy. But it’s interesting to see the film work to craft a moral path around Molly, who Chastain seeks to portray as both guilty and a woman of integrity. Much of this comes through the portrayal of her complicated yet humanizing relationship with her father.

At one point we see an old video clip where a young Molly insists that she doesn’t have any heroes because once successful, she’ll be her own hero. It would be interesting to see how the real Molly Bloom sees herself today.

A brutal encounter with one Mafioso accounts for the film’s violent content, though scattered profanity is primarily responsible for the film's R rating. There is also a lot of revealing clothes throughout, though it didn't exactly qualify for nudity or sexual content by MPAA standards.

“Molly's Game” is rated R for language, drug content and some violence; running time: 140 minutes.