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21 Print E-mail
Friday, 28 March 2008
Image“21” has a lot of energy and a fascinating basis—it’s too bad that the script by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb is riddled with stereotypes and overly familiar plot elements. Director Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde,” “Monster-in-Law”) wants to show he can strut other kinds of stuff than romantic comedies, and is creative and lively in a technical sense. But he, the movie, and the capable cast are let down by the relationships being too familiar.

It’s based on Ben Mezrich’s book "Bringing Down the House,” which told about how a group of sharp M.I.T. students thoroughly beat the odds at Las Vegas. The game of blackjack (also called “21,” giving the movie its title) actually can be won regularly (not invariably) by carefully counting the face cards that have been played, thereby having an idea of how many have yet to be played. Counting cards isn’t illegal—but it’s not allowed in casinos anyway; the owners want the odds to stay in THEIR favor. This team developed an elaborate system of gestures and code words; one would play at a blackjack table until realizing the deck was “hot” (the remaining count is in their favor), so would signal the “big player” to join the game, then used the code word to pass on the information. (Jeffrey Ma, a central figure on the team, appears in the movie as Jeff, a Vegas blackjack dealer.)

The problem lay in finding a script that could dramatize the situation and events; a bunch of privileged college geniuses beating the odds in Vegas isn’t a story, it’s a situation. So here we’re introduced to Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), about to graduate from MIT, who hopes to get a medical scholarship to Harvard. He’s been working on a “2.09” science project with two nerdish friends (Josh Gad, who’s very good, and Sam Golzari), and has just landed a job at a Boston clothing store. He’s got the grades for Harvard, but if he can’t get that scholarship, he won’t be able to go to medical school.

Wouldn’t you know it, just at this juncture, he’s approached by slick math professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey, also one of the producers) to join a secret team he’s been working with for some time. The group includes the gorgeous Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), arrogant Jimmy Fisher (Jacob Pitts), and a few others. Rosa is a long-time gambler and has a very good method for winning at blackjack. He hasn’t played for years himself, and instead recruits students, though he hovers nearby to keep an eye on things. Ben is at first reluctant to join, but he’s very attracted to the saucy Jill, and so signs on.
We also meet free-lance Vegas security expert Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), who knows how to use the ubiquitous “eyes in the sky”—security TV cameras—to watch for cheaters and those who might beat the games legally (but undesirably). Eventually, we learn that Williams and Mickey are old-time combatants.

When the team arrives in Las Vegas, the movie becomes jazzed with energy (and very loud sound) as the teenage/early 20s team hits the big life square on, and are almost overwhelmed by it. They continue their classes during the week, fly to Vegas on Fridays, back to Boston Sunday nights. It’s a dizzying whirl, especially when they begin amassing huge winnings—of which Mickey claims 50%. He’s very businesslike about the whole thing; he’s very calculating, interested in the team only for their cleverness and ability to change the odds at the blackjack tables. As he says more than once, he’s not their father, he’s not their friend—he’s their business leader. Although Spacey is a delight in the role—sleek, gimlet-eyed, arrogant, witty—the character is unlikable and remote. This is probably the intention, but it hampers being caught up in the film.

So do the other characters. It’s hard to believe that Jim Sturgess, who resembles Tom Cruise (this is even mentioned in the movie), would be such a total nerd, unable to get dates, with only a couple of fellow-nerd friends. He’s handsome and charismatic; there’s not enough difference between his nerdhood and dashing Vegas hipster. Jill likes him as a friend and partner early on, but won’t have anything to do with him physically. After he becomes a top player in expensive Italian suits and shades, known to all the bellhops and dealers, she does become fascinated by him—but this serves mainly to make her character seem shallow, easily won over by surface details. It might have been more interesting had she been interested in Ben-the-nerd, then attracted and also repelled by Ben-the-hipster.

The other members of the team work at creating their characters, and Aaron Yoo, as Choi, has it a bit easier than the others—at first he’s out for every freebie he can snatch, even swiping chocolates and cheap pens from the hotel maid carts. But there’s not much more to him than these superficial traits. Liza Lapira, as Kianna, is mostly simply there; nobody seems to have bothered to try to give her a distinct personality. And Jacob Pitts, as Jimmy Fisher, is there solely to be supplanted by Ben, so he’s required to undergo an unconvincing breakdown while they’re at a blackjack table. We never have any idea what the team members other than Ben plan to do with their winnings; we see them buy clothes, and that’s it.

The movie is in love with the idea of Las Vegas; there’s a good montage prior to the titles, flashes of cards, green felt, stacks of chips and the lack, sizzling with energy and underlain with Ben’s narration. We’re also treated to a mini-tour of casinos (mainly Planet Hollywood) and increasingly luxurious hotel suites. The scenes in Vegas are hot and lively (with that thunderous sound score, including lots of hard-rocking music), the scenes in Boston more tranquil and wintry; the color schemes of the two settings reflect this, too—Vegas is hard, bright colors, even at night, Boston (which looks great covered in snow) is softer, gentler, with the dark wood tones of college offices.

Every now and then we return to Cole Williams; Fishburne, who doesn’t work enough these days, is big, mean and smart. His company is losing casinos as customers apparently because of this one team of blackjack card counters. That’s not credible, but we do believe his earnest desire to obtain biometric facial recognition software. Here, though, it seems that software is easily foiled by wigs and glued-on mustaches; I’m pretty sure the real deals aren’t so readily thwarted. Fishburne is great fun in the role, and genuinely menacing, too.

The movie’s greatest strength is the battle of wills between Kevin Spacey’s Mickey and Jim Sturgess’s Ben—but we don’t see nearly enough of this, or of Spacey in general. He’s had the very prestigious and busy position as Artistic Director of the Old Vic Theatre Company in London, and so has not made very many movies over the last five years. (Did you know he had a supporting role in last year’s “Fred Claus”?) He’s still one of the liveliest, most entertaining actors working; I hope he’s having a grand time, but I also wish he made more movies.

“21” is reasonably entertaining, but could have been more fun and more powerful had it developed its “human” story along less familiar, hackneyed lines. The idea of a bunch of bright college kids taking Vegas casinos to the cleaners is very attractive—everyone wants to beat the odds, and we love see people winning in Vegas. That side of the story, the reason the movie was made in the first place, is solid and convincing in “21;” the romance and human conflict is flabby and unpersuasive. The result is mixed—entertaining and dissatisfying in equal measures.

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