People talking a mile-a-minute about tightly-focused points of procedure, piling clauses upon clause until you realize that you've been listening to one nested sentence for the last 30 seconds; yes indeed, Molly's Game was written by Aaron Sorkin, alright. Regrettably, there are very few (if any!) scenes where people have elaborate conversations while walking abreast down a hallway, but that's pretty much the only point missing.

And to top it off, Molly's Game is Sorkin's directorial debut as well; he's not even overseen so much as an episode of one of his several television shows before now. And he does a perfectly adequate job of it, failing on the one hand to demonstrate that he's been hiding the light of a great filmmaker all these years, but also failing to embarrass himself or ruin his own screenplay, adapted from the memoirs of Molly Bloom, who got herself into a spot of trouble with the FBI on account of the amazingly posh, high-stakes underground poker games she used to run, by which means she managed to cross paths with the Russian mob at a certain point. It's a thoroughly average, adequate piece of directing, with a bit more flashiness in its application of cross-cutting and mixed media than I'd have anticipated. Mostly, it seems obvious, Sorkin was interested in helping his cast around the customarily chewy, florid dialogue, and in so doing bringing his script to life with the least possible distraction.

And this they do. Molly is played by Jessica Chastain, who takes obvious delight in diving into the complexity and balderdash of Sorkin's voice; it's a peculiar, paradoxical job of acting that is so clipped and stripped down to just a few notes that the very intense narrowness of the performance ends up feeling robust and hammy. Chastain speaks most of her lines with an authoritative bark, ever so slightly undercut by a quavering not of panicked frustration. The perpetual rings of mascara Molly wears throughout the movie give the actor's eyes a bright sharpness, which in turn allows her to do small work with her face throughout the movie. It's one of the best leading performances in any Sorkin-scripted film, and that's enough to make Molly herself seem like a more consequential protagonist than is entirely grounded in what happens to her over the course of the plot.

As for what that plot is: a lot of problem-solving, mostly. The film snags its structure from The Social Network, the best feature yet made from a Sorking screenplay; its framework is Molly's attempt to wrangle a lawyer and deal with her arrest as a RICO conspirator for no discernible reason. The lawyer in question is Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who clearly distrusts her from the start, but who takes on the case at least in part to solve the puzzle of what the hell motivated her to pass up more legitimate opportunities in order to build her glamorous poker empire, and motivates her now to refuse to name names about who attended her games, when it would immediately get her out from under the Feds' thumb.

The film has an answer for that, one foreshadowed by its best scene, an excellent opening in which we see the 20-year-old Molly suffer a terrible injury on the cusp of earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic skiing team, and paid off in its worst scene, which finds her psychologist dad (Kevin Costner) glibly explaining everything about her in shitty dimestore Freudianism (about which, let us say merely that writing his first female protagonist has not solved Sorkin's longstanding problems with writing women). But psychological insight really doesn't seem to be the main focus of any part of Molly's Game, no matter how much it implies the opposite with Chastain's layered performance, and the wildly disproportionate quantity of voiceover narration (I would readily believe that a majority of Chastain's lines were spoken in narration), and all of the bits and pieces about how Molly was raised to be a world-class athlete and had to sublimate her competitive drive. This is absolutely a movie about doing stuff: the strategies of how Molly arranged her games, how she found players, and how she managed her money and business are all vastly more intriguing to the film than why she does any of this. The mechanics of poker, too: while this is not, primarily, a film about poker playing, its nods in the direction of the mathematics and psychological gamesmanship involved in the game make it perhaps the most cinematically invigorating portrayal of poker I've seen.

The framework narrative does, maybe, try to get inside Molly's head a bit more thoroughly, in part because the viewer is invited to sit alongside Charlie's attempts to puzzle her out, aided by Elba's inquisitive, slow-burn performance (his best in ages, though still a much smaller role than he deserves). But it's still a process-oriented problem: how to mount a successful legal defense when the defendant is driven to refuse any strategy that might even slightly compromise her morally. And this is all good stuff: the process-driven, problem-solving approach to storytelling is what animated the TV series Sports Night and the early seasons of The West Wing, still the best work of Sorkin's writing career.

Actually, that's really all I have to say: this is good stuff. It's not by any means flawless stuff: besides the aforementioned scene with My Dad the Psychoanalyst, there are more than a few scenes that do absolutely nothing but run up the length while stating things we probably could have surmised, or things dumb enough that no surmise should have made itself available. I would like to suppose that a more clear-eyed collaborator might have interceded at some point to suggest that Sorkin didn't need anywhere near all of this (at 140 minutes, Molly's Game is a lot of movie for a relatively basic, capering plot), but we'll never know: instead we get the full uncut Sorkin here, in love with his words, in love with his moral dilemmas, in love with procedures. Molly's Game doesn't really add anything new to the world, but retreads that ground with enjoyable wit and an upbeat pace. It's the kind of movie that seems vaguely remarkable only because we don't have very many smart, enjoyable movies for middlebrow adults, but the middlebrow adults need as much love as anybody, and this is, whatever else is true, a damn easy thing to sit through. Just don't expect any particular wisdom, or even a modicum of visual artistry, and you'll be fine.