21 (2008) / Drama-Thriller
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Josh Gad, Sam Golzari, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Jack McGee, Helen Carey
Director: Robert Luketic
Screenplay: Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb (based on the book, "Bringing Down the House: the Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions")
Review published April 5, 2008
Loosely based on the nonfiction book, "Bringing Down the House", by Ben Mezrich, this highly sensationalized account of how several MIT students (who were mainly Asian in reality) employed a lucrative card counting system in Vegas makes for a good deal of eye-candy glitz and music video-style editing, but fails to engage in any kind of enthralling, or even plausible, narrative form.
Jim Sturgess (The Other Boleyn Girl, Across the Universe) stars as extremely gifted MIT student Ben Campbell, working hard to prove himself worthy of an exclusive scholarship that will take care of about $300,000 in fees for graduate school at Harvard Medical. Told he needs something impressive to make himself stand out in his application, Ben struggles for anything to come up with. Opportunity knocks when one of Ben's professors, Micky Rosa (Spacey, Fred Claus), invites him to join his little group of other savvy students to make a small fortune in Vegas, utilizing their knack for numbers and statistics to help each other count cards. Ben initially wants nothing to do with it, but financial pressures loom, as well as the fact that the team contains the object of his desires, fellow student hottie Jill Taylor (Bosworth, Superman Returns). He consents, and soon becomes the catalyst for raking in tens of thousands of dollars at the blackjack tables -- at least until hubris sets in, not to mention catching the eye of a scary security expert, Cole Williams (Fishburne, The Death and Life of Bobby Z), who has a bloodlust for catching card counters.
21 is a glossy, kinetic experience, bombarding viewers with plenty of visually interesting shots and editing, with extreme close-ups of the playing cards, sweeping shots of the casinos, helicopter fly-overs of the lights of Vegas, and opportunities to catch lots of cheesecake through meetings at strip joints. Directed by the energetic romantic comedy director Robert Luketic (Monster-in-Law, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!), the emphasis is clearly much more on the glamour and allure of the Vegas experience over such narrative building blocks like characters, plotting and thematic resonance. The actors are fine, yet the situations strain plausibility, especially in a climax that pits Ben with his mentor, Micky, in a play to put everything on the line in a ludicrous final showdown with Cole. Co-producer Spacey, while a strong presence in the role, continues to take on the bad influence parts that have all but made Al Pacino's recent career unremarkable.
Another liability is that Luketic can't figure out a way to make the actual game of blackjack exciting. We see many wins, many close calls, and what appears to be plenty of tension for the gamblers, but there isn't a single hand where we are shown just where the game stands and how the strategy plays out. This brings up another point -- the strategy itself isn't really explained very well. We know that there is a key to winning that involves counting cards based on how many high cards are left in the deck, but the actual mathematical strategy is given short shrift to superficial win-loss results. When the deck is stacked, we see win after win, but it makes little sense that the Blackjacks are so readily attainable. While there may be an advantage to knowing that the deck favors highs or lows, it's not so much that you could win 95% of the time, as it shows in the film.
You can see where the film is going early, and despite a few switches near the end, no amount of curveballs can cover up the fact that, though these protagonists are in mortal jeopardy, what happens to any of them matters little. At over two hours, there was certainly an opportunity to do more, but Luketic's style is to continue to try to engage with editing and music, seeing the characters and their situations as just a means to more flash and zip. Bosworth's character has plenty of screen time without any depth to show for it. Spacey and Fishburne give their roles intensity without clueing us in on why they are so passionate about what they do.
21 plays out not much better than The Perfect Score in terms of smart kids doing some shady things to get ahead. What's missing from the equation is intelligence in the script itself, and a director who thinks that bogging down his two hour music video with meaningful dialogue or, at the very least, an attempt to give background information as to the game and its statistical permutations. Even ethical questions are ditched nearly as soon as they are brought up, which makes the entirety of the film's moral wrangling, that avarice can cause people to gain riches while they lose their souls, as rather hollow.
A trip to the theater to see 21 is not unlike a trip to Vegas itself. Exchanging excess cash for the experience of the flashing lights and energetic vibe might feel like money well spent, but for those who like an evening to remember beyond the sparkle, you'll quickly find there's credence in the Shakespearean adage, "All that glisters is not gold".
©2008 Vince Leo