With the ongoing popularity of high stakes poker, greenlighting a film like 21 would appear to be a Tinseltown no-brainer. After all, you've got the true story of how a group of MIT students broke the bank in Vegas by applying their highly trained analytical minds toward counting cards, beating Sin City's blackjack tables in the process. It's a mega-dose of Mensa wish fulfillment. But leave it to Hollywood to fiddle with the facts. Ben Mezrich's non-fiction book entitled Bringing Down the House centered on a group of mostly Asian geniuses grifting casinos for all the cash they could. Somehow, that translated into a cast consisting of Kevin Spacey
, Jim Sturgess
, and Kate Bosworth
When Ben Campbell (Sturgess) learns that Harvard Medical School will cost $300,000 for tuition, room, and board, he sees no possible way of paying the bill. While studying one night, he is approached by Jason Fisher (Jacob Pitts) who invites him into the secret world of Professor Micky Rosa's (Spacey) card-counting club. With an elaborate system of formulas, buzzwords, and signals, Rosa and his students have been hitting Las Vegas on weekends and winning big. They now want Ben to join their clandestine cabal. At first, he says no. But thanks to the seductive sway of juicy Jill Taylor (Bosworth), Ben acquiesces. Soon, he is leading the group toward untold riches -- and the investigative glare of casino security agent Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne
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With its insider track, specialized skill, and beat-the-system sentiment, 21 is desperate to be a cracking cautionary tale for the Hard Rock Cafe crowd. Instead, it's a middling entertainment that gets a lot of mileage out of very little cinematic star power. Somewhere buried in all the glitterati shots of neon-streaked avenues and polished gambling pits, the comp suite spaces, and hallowed halls of advanced learning is a truly amoral romp about cheating to achieve material gains. While Spacey's Micky makes it very clear that there is nothing inherently illegal about card counting, Fishburne's got a series of scary rings on his fist that says different. One of them is right, and it's this ethical quandary that consistently subverts the film's narrative strides.
In fact, the vast majority of 21 plays like an overlong lecture in ethics class. Sturgess is viewed as both a wide-eyed innocent and an easily-directed huckster. One moment he's concerned about doing the right thing. The next he's foaming at the mouth to make another trip to the Blackjack tables. He does incredibly dumb things -- hiding tons of cash in his ceiling, ignoring his overly curious friends -- for such a smart guy, and his motivational shifts are so severe that we never get a clear handle on his goals. It's the same with everyone else in the film. Spacey seems poised between villain and Svengali, in it for the money and/or the interpersonal manipulation. Bosworth blossoms when she works the dealers undercover, but seems strangely one-dimensional when purely acting the student.
With Fishburne all firebrand bluster, and everyone else neatly falling into the background, 21 trips and stumbles toward its inevitable showdown/switcheroo finale. If you can't see the last 30 minutes as one elongated ruse, you haven't been to a mainstream movie in quite a while. Indeed, director Robert Luketic
(of Legally Blonde and Monster-In-Law fame) borrows too many cinematic chestnuts from the formula film vault, missing many opportunities to make this material more electric and engaging. What we end up with is a genial, generic effort attached to an intrinsically interesting premise. This is one case where, no matter the bet, no one wins -- not the audience nor the artists involved.